¡ Viva Cuba !

Monday 4th January 2010


We woke early, too early for breakfast, so we unpacked whilst listening to Radio Rebelde through the hotel TV.

We couldn't understand a word they were jabbering on about in their quick-fire Spanish but just listening to the radio station first broadcasted from the Sierra Mountains in 1958 by revolutionary guerrillas was just ... well, so essentially Cuban that it set the perfect mood to launch our first day in Havana.

"Radio Rebelde!" the presenter proclaimed proudly. I echoed.

The room was a bit musty so I opened the window onto a surprisingly grey day, not quite the glorious Caribbean weather we were expecting.

The window also opened out to a view I wasn't expecting.

I was imagining run down colonial structures, woefully dilapidated yet wonderfully charming. Instead I saw the peach coloured Hotel Ambos Mundos reflected in the modern glass exterior of the former Ministry of Education building.

It wasn't long before we got to see the classic view associated with Havana. Breakfast was served on the 6th floor roof-top terrace which was a perfect vantage point to see La Habana Vieja, the historic heart of the city.

In the foreground pretty red tiled roof tops added much needed colour to the mostly grey landscape. A Cuban flag, at least two storeys tall draped down the side of a building, added another splash of red, white and blue.

That's where the colour ended. Beyond these the view was one of the slow crumbling death of desperate buildings. There was something strangely poetic about the view.

Perhaps it was a small cupola of a church rising out of the mess, lost amongst the neglected concrete tower blocks that added something beautiful. Perhaps it was the whole romanticised symbolism of the decay, a sad reflection of the island's isolation and struggle to survive over the years that captured the imagination.

Looking north was a different reflection of the city, the imposing Palacio de los Capitanes Generales reminding us of the city's glorious and prosperous past.

We could see the bell towers and dome of Catedral de San Cristobal and then in the background the lighthouse of Castilla del Morro on a rocky outcrop jutting into the bay of Havana.

The wind was quite blustery up here and cold! We seemed to have brought the British weather with us.

We ate our breakfast which suffered badly from the wind chill factor. Everything was cold, pancakes were stone cold, the coffee was tepid, the cooked breakfast items like the bacon had congealed together into one impenetrable mass. The only thing remotely warm were the boiled eggs. So I had two.

"I'm going to suffer later" I said "two eggs this morning and all that cabbage last night"

"It's not you who'll suffer" said Julie "it'll be everyone else!"

We had a scheduled meeting with our Virgin rep this morning. It wasn't at our hotel but at Hotel Parque Central a short distance away. So we left our breakfast and headed out down Calle Obispo which lead almost directly to the central park.

The streets were quite busy with people walking and hardly any traffic for us to worry about.

My biggest concern was not being hit by a cruising cadillac but generally not looking where I was going. When I'm in a new place I'm terrible for always walking with my attention on all around me but for straight ahead.

I looked down every side street and alleyway fascinated by each step I took.

A foot firmly planted into deep pothole puddle and a small stumble against the kerb later and we had reached the end of Calle Obispo.

El Floridita, Havana

The street opened out into a small open space. It didn't feel like it a square or proper plaza but more of an area where there once was a building but it had collapsed leaving behind a void.

It was here where we found El Floridita, a bar famous for its association with Hemmingway and his liking for the Daiquiri cocktail. It was closed, which was a good thing, 9am was far too early for a drink!

The Hotel Central Parque was at the northern end of the leafy park. It was a newly built modern hotel and had all the trappings of 5 star facilities. Despite the mustiness, broken bed, cold breakfast we both agreed that we still preferred Hotel Ambos Mundos. It's charm went along way in us forgiving its failings.

We met Imelia, the Virgin rep, in the lobby and she directed us up to a conference room. We were the first to arrive. I suspect many visitors probably don't even bother attending.

In fact if it wasn't that we wanted to book an evening to the Tropicana cabaret club we probably wouldn't have turned up either.

Imelia did go through a few FAQs and useful tips, including the dual currency. She mentioned that using a credit card where available was just as economical as using cash despite the 11% surcharge because there an 8% levy on exchanging cash anyway. She also explained that any cards linked to American banks would not be accepted. Not because they didn't want to do business with American banks but because the US trade embargo is still in place and Cuba would never receive payment for the transaction.

She went on to promote the various trips and tours they had on offer, such as excursions to the Vinales valley, an overnight trip to Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, various Havana city tours except for the cigar factory tours. The whole month of January is a holiday for all the cigar factory workers and so they shut for the month. Already a reason to come back!

We booked our Tropicana tickets choosing the dinner & show option which was expensive at $95 each, especially as we had to find our own way there.

We also asked about a restaurant called La Guarida. I'd been trying to make a reservation over the internet but I hadn't received any confirmation back from them. La Guarida is known as a paladar, a little chink of capitalist free enterprise allowed to operate within some restrictions. There's only a small number of them in Havana and La Guarida is considered to be the best in Cuba. Julie had overheard on the flight over that it may of closed and Imelia confirmed that it was closed for renovations after the roof had fallen in!

We left the meeting via the hotel's gift shop. Another tip of Imelia's was that it didn't matter where you bought your cigars, the price should be same. I took my time studying the various lengths, thickness, quality and plumped for a San Cristobal La Habana, only because it was a mid-priced and big!

The lady behind the counter asked if I wanted it placed in a cardboard sleeve to protect it but I explained I wanted to smoke it today so she sliced the end off with a nifty little contraption she held between her thumb and index finger. A box of Partagas matches completed the sale. I was now ready to light up but I wanted to wait for the right location.

Back out on the streets we decided that our first Havana attraction to visit would be the Museo de la Revolucion. It was only a short distance away from Parque Central.

Walking down the Paseo del Prado I wasn't that impressed by the street modelled on the Prado in Madrid until I realised that this wasn't the Paseo del Prado street but another lesser known Zulueta street.

We soon came across a large glass pavilion which encased a modern yacht called Granma. It was preserved for posterity because it was the boat on which Fidel Castro, Che Guevera and another eighty comrades sneaked into Cuba from their exile in Tuxpan, Mexico to start their revolution in 1956.

We couldn't enter the memorial site from the street so we continued on our way towards the front of the museum.

It was quite ironic that the former Presidential palace was now a museum to the revolution. It was the residence of Cuba's leaders from 1920 onwards including the final premier, President Batista.

It cost $6 each to enter plus another $2 surcharge to take in a camera.

After leaving our bags in the cloakroom we made our way to the main entrance hall.


A beautiful sweeping marble staircase lead us up to the first floor past a presidential looking bust of Cuban hero Jose Marti. He was the original revolutionary having fought and died for Cuba's independence from Spain during the late 19th century.

He never saw a free Cuba but three years after his death the United States of America negotiated a deal with Spain for Cuba's release, whilst securing in the process the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and establish naval bases in the country, which explains the bizarre situation of the now infamous Guantanamo Bay.

A series of Presidents followed one after each other as the fledgling republic chugged along without much incident.

Things began to get a little nasty with the tyrannical President Machado but his rule came to an end when he was forced to flee the country by the army in 1933. The force behind the army was Sergeant Fulgencio Batista who then effectively controlled the country for the next 25 years, whether through puppet presidents or directly serving as elected President. It culminated in him seizing power for himself in the 1952 coup d’état and ruled Cuba as a cruel dictator.

During the 50s Cuba descended into America's play thing, a pleasure island of gambling, prostitution and drugs. Controlled by the US mobsters Havana was the new Las Vegas. The corrupt Batista's regime was getting richer as the country was getting poorer. Jose Marti would have been turning in his grave.

It was a country ripe for revolution. And so it unfolded.

As we got closer to the bust we noticed a series of holes along the wall behind. They were bullet holes, the result of an assassination attempt on President Batista in 1957 by a group of university students.

We stood and looked at these historical holes for a while before our attention was then caught by the spectacular dome high above us. There was something very attractive about it.

From the first floor we walked straight up to the next which confused us being called the third floor. We must have missed a level in the middle somewhere!

The museum began here with items from the early revolutionaries moving chronologically through the years. Blood stained clothes, blood splattered newspapers and implements of torture built an image of the people's struggle. The bizarre nail extracting machine and a large rusty pincer they applied to the genitals were particularly gruesome tools.

In the next room we saw one of the radio's used to broadcast Radio Rebelde from the Sierra Maestra mountains. It was a chunky piece of kit full of bulbous glass valves and transformers. Carrying that from one camp to another whilst under fire would not have been easy.

Photographs and memorabilia from the revolution years filled the individual rooms of the palace. Some were more interesting than others.

A photograph of the rebel army, the barbudos (the bearded ones) marching triumphantly into the city of Cienfuegos was superb.

It captured the real sense of joy and hope of the liberation. Of course one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and Castro knew this when he wrote his "History will absolve me" speech putting forward the case for their armed insurgence and the responsibility of power.

I'm not politically minded in the slightest but after walking through the museum celebrating the revolution I was easily converted to a fully pledged member of the 26th of July Movement, as the revolutionaries called themselves. There was plenty of evidence on display to give overwhelming justification for change through force.

Of course I'd already been influenced before even stepping a foot in Cuba by the legend of the revolution, with those involved portrayed as heroes.

None more so than Che Guevara who's elevation to Jesus-like divinity had more to do with one photograph titled the Heroic Guerilla by Alberto Korda rather than his noble qualities of integrity and empathy for the common man.

It's easy to forget whilst looking at the world's most iconic image on the front of someone's summery T-shirt that he was also a ruthless military leader responsible for many executions.

Love him or loathe him I don't think there will ever be another person quite like him.

The museum continued with post-revolution Cuba photographs covering the rebuilding of the country and graphs showing how improvements to healthcare and education were making Cuba a better place. The Bay of Pigs, Che in Angola, were all given some wall space.

In the last room there was a strange Madam Tussauds moment with a wax work model of Che and another hero of the revolution, Camilo Cienfuegos. (same name as the Cuban town but of no connection)

They were dressed in their trademark battle fatigues and headwear of choice, Che in his famous black beret and Camilo in a wide rimmed khaki hat.

In a display cabinet they had a beret that was once worn by Guevara and in another Cienfuegos shirt folded neatly. I have to admit to finding it quite exciting, even the dull black and white photos on the wall fascinated me.

Museo de Revolucion, Havana

As with all museums there's always a gift shop and this was no exception, although being located in the middle of the third floor you weren't forced to walk through it, you entered of your free will.

I couldn't not enter as the sight of Cuban flags lured me in. With the second largest on display wrapped up for $12 I was a happy little revolutionary. My flag fix satisfied.

I could have bought a Che T-Shirt or a Che bandana but I was more than content with just the flag for my collection.

Moving on we went down a level to the second (first) floor.

The focus here wasn't so much on museum pieces but the rooms themselves. The council chambers, the president's office, the golden hall and the beautiful Salon de los Espejos, the hall of mirrors.

The palace had been extensively decorated by Tiffany's of New York but the best feature of the large reception hall was the amazing fresco on the ceiling where angels heralded in the free Cuba.

We moved on following the signs and ended up on the ground floor walking out the back door towards the Granma Memorial.

A short soldier with a red beret stood guard near the eternal flame dedicated to the heroes of the revolution. "Gloria eterna a los heroes de la patria nueva"; (eternal glory to the heroes of the new nation) was the stirring inscription.

The centrepiece was of course the Granma, the boat used by Castro and his army to sneak back into Cuba.

We walked up a ramp onto a platform which stood at deck level.

The Granma was safe behind inches thick glass but another soldier stood guard, I suppose to make sure we were being respectful.

Julie and I stood there trying to imagine 82 soldiers crammed on board. It was either a stroke of genius or madness to think they could sneak an army into Cuba inside a millionaire's luxury yacht. The 60 foot cabin cruiser was designed to only carry 12 passengers.

On the 2nd December 1956 they landed in a province to the east of the country but the revolution almost came to an end before it began.

Most were captured and killed as soon as they had landed but around twenty escaped into the mountains. It took them little over two years before they marched victorious into Havana.

We circled the memorial which had dotted around it several military items such as the tank used by Castro himself when he confronted the attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the jet engine of a US spy plane shot down during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

They were all powerful statements of Cuba's resilience against the old foe America.

Before returning back inside we sat down for a drink in a small cafe near the museum's back door. The waiter came over to take our order only to turn into a barman when he explained he couldn't make us the simple black coffees we wanted.

We could have had a mojito or a daiquiri or even a whoo-hoo but not a coffee. Never mind.

After resting for a while we went back inside Museo de la Revolucion where we came across the corner of the cretins, hilarious cartoon drawings of Batista, Ronald Reagan and George Bush with a sentence in Spanish, English and French besides each saying "Thanks cretin because you've helped us to consolidate our revolution."

It was funny for the simple comical value but also it was laced with some sadness as I read its subtext to be "Thanks for being bastards as what doesn't kill us can only make us stronger".

The revolution was consolidated by the suffering and torment of its people. They endured difficult times as a result of the US trade embargo, especially the nineties when the Soviet Union imploded.

The country was brought to its knees, crippled by a sudden disappearance of funding. It's referred to as the periodo especial, the special period when Cuba was left to fend for itself, a period where everyone had to pull together for all their sakes.

Things got so hard they even invented pineapple steaks as a meat substitute!

We left the museum and returned back down to the central park to find somewhere that would serve us coffee. Every side street along the way was full of fascination, big old cars and ageing architecture.

Edifico Balaguer, Havana

Over-looked by a marble statue of the statesman Jose Marti we crossed the square towards the historic Hotel Inglaterra. It has welcomed guests, English and otherwise, since before the real Jose Marti stood here preaching independence.

It had a lovely pavement cafe called the Gran Cafe El Louvre which was exactly what we were looking for.

We sat down and watched Havana pass us by. Thankfully we weren't in any rush as the service wasn't quick. Half an hour after ordering our coffee eventually arrived.

They must have been left standing for quite some time as they were stone cold by the time we got them. It was so disappointing.

At least the wait gave us the opportunity to decide on where we were going to have lunch, what we were going to do this afternoon, the day after, the rest of our stay in Cuba and indeed the year ahead.

The clouds had begun to thin and the sun shine as we headed in the direction of the Capitolio, the parliament building that's apparently a copy of the Capitol in Washington D.C. only slightly bigger!

The attention grabbing massive dome almost made us miss the beautiful facade of the Gran Teatro.

The highly decorative front of this former palace was stunning, enhanced by four sculptures representing Charity, Education, Theatre and Music.

It pierced the sky line with angles crowning the towers at each of it's four corners.

Capitolio, Havana

It's now home to the Cuban National Ballet. For a country known mostly for its unrestrained salsa dancing it's interesting to hear that its formal ballet dancers have become world renowned.

We crossed the road and walked down the section of the Prado opposite the seriously imposing Capitolio.

There was no shortage of vintage cars passing to give us that timeless Havana view, a scene unchanged in fifty years. Although the number of tour buses shipping in the tourists from the nearby beaches of Varadero were certainly a more recent addition.

Whilst waiting for our coffees at Hotel Inglaterre we had decided not to do the Capitolio today. Our focus for this afternoon was going to be the Old Town. But first lunch.

We were on the look out for a small restaurant called Los Nardos, somewhere opposite the Capitolio.

Eyes now firmly fixed on this side of the avenue we came across a side street called Brasil. It was in a sorry state yet achingly beautiful; in its own way another classic view of Havana.

It made us realise what a gorgeous city Havana must have been in its heyday with its grand palaces and colourful houses.

Havana, Cuba

We almost missed the entrance to Los Nardos. It was just a doorway leading to some steps that disappeared upwards. There was a sign above us but it was hardly noticeable. Imelia had recommended the restaurant to us this morning, in addition to it having favourable reviews in all the guide books.

"Just ignore the outside" she said.

We saw what she meant as we entered the dark hallway and climbed the staircase up to the first floor.

We popped out into a bright open space, a gap in between buildings where gas canisters rattled and air conditioning units whirred. It felt as we were entering through the back door, the tradesman's entrance.

We needn't have worried. Imelia was right. Once inside we soon forgot about the outside. Although inside, we walked across a dimly lit reception room a little confused as we had to scale another flight of steps to finally reach the restaurant.

The waiter welcomed us and asked where we would like to sit. I imagined a table by a window overlooking the Capitolio would be one of the most sough after in town and peered inside the room in case there was one vacant. I was shocked not to see any windows at all through in the main dining room.

We eventually sat in the corner of the middle section nearest the bar.

Julie ordered a chicken described on the menu as "Pio Pio". It sounded ever so exotic but when it arrived it was just a plain chicken breast. She was far from disappointed as it's the way she prefers her chicken. Served with corrugated sliced potatoes and onions and also a tasty portion of rice & beans she really enjoyed her lunch.

In contrast the best thing about my pizza was the Cristal beer I drank to wash it down. The base was too spongy, the topping far too greasy but the refreshing beer was ice cold. It was all reasonably priced at $12.44. The staff were very attentive and friendly so we gave them $14 but didn't know Spanish for keep the change. When the change came back they'd already kept some of it as it was short of 75 cents.

We left Los Nardos and crossed the busy road towards the Capitolio. As we were in the area I just wanted to walk over to the cigar factory Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas.

We stood for a while to look at the attractive cream and orange building from the gardens behind the Capitolio.

It was a real shame that it was shut for January!

A visit to a cigar factory is one of Cuba's highlights. We were approached several times here by friendly locals trying to help us find cigars. "It's closed. You want cigars? Follow me" Whilst I'm sure that would have been an interesting adventure we declined and carried on our way.

We continued within the Capitolio gardens looking out over to a street called Calle Industria. The buildings were once again in poor repair yet they looked so wonderful.

Why do crumbling dirty walls photograph so well?

I guess cracks and peeling paint make for a more interesting canvas than a smooth uniform surface.

But it's more than just that. Perhaps the haunting beauty of the distress reveals an aura of history. If only these walls could speak.

We turned the corner, still following the garden path within the Capitolio grounds, still fending off the occasional cigar seller.

Every step revealed a photograph waiting to be taken.

A large black cadillac, so evocative of the 50s and the time the mob ruled the city, was parked on Calle San Martin in front of an abandoned house where its doors and windows had been boarded up. There was a small shrub sprouting from a window ledge.

"That would make a nice picture" Julie said and she was right.

classic car, Havana, Cuba

One thing we noticed was the lack of random graffiti. Other than the odd state sponsored murals there were none to be seen, which was very refreshing.

We completed the circle around the Capitolio and rejoined the Prado by the Gran Teatro, walking back across the Parque Central.

We threw ourselves back into the narrow streets of the old town, returning towards our hotel via a different route. We began by entering a supermarket called Harris Brothers on the corner of Calle O'Reilly. The store wasn't as completely empty as we had imagined but the selection of items available was certainly very limited.

What little they had were behind glass or behind the counter. They had plenty of rum, naturally, and we noticed they were well stocked with toiletries, in particular shampoo, which according to one urban myth is one of those things tourists are encourage to leave behind as its considered a luxury item and a useful car engine lubricant !?!

We walked in one end of the store and out the other onto Calle O'Reilly, a street that ran parallel to Obispo which we walked down this morning. Walking out of the Harris Brothers onto O'Reilly street gave the city a sudden British flavour.

I knew that the British fought for control of Havana as a strategic port in the Caribbean and actually governed the city for a year in 1762 before handing it back to the Spanish in return for Florida. What I didn't know was that Alexander O'Reilly was an Irish-born General of the Spanish Army who received Havana back from the British in 1793.

As for the Harris brothers, they were Americans who owned the store in pre-revolutionary Havana. For some reason the name has stuck.

A reminder of the revolution and it's 51st Anniversary was displayed in every shop window with a poster of a healthy looking Fidel Castro (obviously taken a few years ago) above plenty of flag waving and the headline of 51 anos revolucion.
One shop wasn't displaying the celebrationary poster but that's because it didn't have a window, just a hole in the wall!

It was called the Mercadoagrop Estatal and looked really interesting. I was itching to stop and have a closer look. They had no products on display but instead had slips of paper hanging from the window ledge describing what they sell and their price.

We soon turned left up calle San Ignacio and found ourselves in the lovely square of Plaza de la Catedral.

The crowning glory of the plaza was the Catedral de San Cristobal. Set between two bell towers the beautiful facade was once described as "music set in stone".

There was a certain flow to it's graceful lines.

The cathedral was named San Cristobal as the remains of Christopher Columbus were interred here for a hundred years before being moved to Seville in 1898.

Tables from the El Patio restaurant spilled out into the square where people sipped their cocktails whilst listening to a band of straw hatted musicians knock out their Latin rhythms sitting on the steps of the Museo de Arte Colonial, the southern end of the square.

Brightly dressed "flower girls" hovered waiting to be photographed with tourist for a small fee.

It was quite an exciting square to be in.

Along the whole eastern side of the square was the Palacio del Conde Lombillo with its large colonnaded front.

Leaning against one of the many columns was a life-size brass statue; of who I didn't have a clue but later discovered that he was Antonio Gades, a famous flamenco dancer from Madrid, Spain. He was apparently a good friend of Raul Castro.

Plaza de la Catedral was his favourite place in Havana.

His ashes however were interned in Santiago de Cuba when he died in 2004.

We left the square and walked a short distance down Calle Emperdrado towards Hemmingway's other favourite watering hole La Bodeguita del Medio. The queue outside was ridiculous, as if a whole cruise ship had just descended on the famous little bar.

"Bloody hell, " I said "I'm not that thirsty"

We turned on our heels, back to the square. We were at a lost as to what to do next so we decided to work up a thirst by walking around the outside of the San Cristobal Cathedral. Twenty minutes later we returned to La Bodeguita and join the back of the queue.

After some ten minutes we hadn't moved much closer but we noticed that a few locals appeared to just waltz to the front of the queue, straight past the bouncer and into the bar.

We decided to give it a try and to our amazement it worked! Turns out everyone else were queuing to get in to eat in the restaurant.

Not us.

We were here for one reason and one reason only, to celebrate the mighty mojito. Over the last few weeks we'd been practicing making the lime and rum cocktail ourselves and were getting quite good at it!

Julie perched herself on a stool as I gradually worked my way through the congestion towards the bar.

When I finally got to order two genuine authentic mojitos I thought the barman must be so bored of taking the same order day in day out. I'm sure he sells nothing else.

Whilst he took our money another was busy knocking out ten cocktails in a row like some robo-barman, bish bosh, kerching; $60 in the cash register.

I excitedly returned to Julie and joined her in the corner eager to taste our proper mojito.

We took our first sip and were bitterly disappointed. We took a second sip and it didn't improve. It just wasn't minty enough, not limey enough not anywhere near rummy enough and the sugar hadn't dissolved adding an unwelcomed crunch to the mix. After such a build up it was a miserable let down.

"The ones we make at home are much nicer!" Julie pointed out and I couldn't agree more.

Never mind, we enjoyed the experience nonetheless. With all it's connection to Ernest Hemingway it was difficult not to feel the presence of history.

La Bodeguita del Medio began its life as a grocery store (hence the word bodeguita meaning shop) in 1942.

It soon added a bar and quickly became a popular hangout in Havana. With Hemingway as a patron its reputation grew and now for every tourist following his international pub crawl La B del M is the holy grail.

To celebrate their visit it's become customary for visitors to scrawl their names across the wall in homage.

It was quite a sight.

Every square inch of accessible wall space was covered in graffiti. We chose not to follow their lead. It just felt wrong. Other than the tolerated defacing of the wall there were other things on display.

Pride of place in the centre above the bar was a painting of a man who I took to be Ernest Hemingway but looked nothing like the old man. I suppose he wasn't La Bodeguita's only famous patron.

Next to it was a photograph of Fidel Castro shaking the hand of the more familiar looking American writer. Apparently the two had a good friendly respect for one another.

Once we had finished our mojitos we stayed on for a while longer just to soak up the atmosphere but there wasn't much, other than watching the excited visitors walk in all wide eyed surveying the scene, ordering a mojito, take a few photos, drink their mojitos, then leave.

I'm sure the average time spent in the bar was probably only around four minutes. We didn't want to out stay our welcome either as our stools were becoming increasingly coveted. I think we lasted ten minutes before moving on.

Sat strategically near the ever-present queue outside La Bodeguita was this feisty old woman sucking on an unlit cigar eager and willing to be a muse for hire. Her face was familiar as we'd seen her on the pages of Lonely Planet web pages.

Anyone who dared take a photo without a $1 donation was sent away with a right rollicking in their ear.

I couldn't resist her spirited charms, paid up her asking price and she posed for a photo. I snapped her in repose just before she shook her fist at an opportunist photographer passing by without paying his dues.

We retraced our steps back through Plaza de la Catedral and got caught up in the tables and chairs of El Patio. We just had to sit down and order a drink.

We thought about ordering a mojito to compare and contrast but opted instead for our first ever daquiri. When it arrived it was of the frozen variety, slush puppy for grown ups!

"Oh my God that's lovely" purred Julie.

It was the most delicious cocktail we'd tasted for a very long time. After an hour of sipping and people watching we reluctantly vacated our table and walked the short distance back to Hotel Ambos Mundos.

With the seal well and truly broken we stepped up to the hotel bar to claim our free cocktail. It was a rum and fruit juice mix and not very nice.

It was so poor we actually left some, at least we didn't have to pay for it.

We sat in the lobby listening to the resident pianist in the corner competently playing relaxing classical tunes whilst marvelling at the Bonsai tree on our table.

The Japanese theme continued when we returned to our room and found some towel origami on our collapsed futon.

Well starched towels had been artistically twisted and bent into the shape of two swans swimming towards each other, their arched necks and heads meeting to form a heart shape.

We were impressed.

A hand drawn note from our chambermaids wished us a "good trip tomorrow" despite us not planning on going anywhere. It was a nice thought though.

We switched on Radio Rebelde and sat on the bed. The swans got it, the champagne got it, and within half an hour we were dozed off into our late afternoon siesta.

Some four hours later we woke up starving hungry. After a quick flick through our guide books we decided to find a restaurant called Al Medina, described as Lebanese themed with a good vegetarian mezze.

It was only a short distance away down a dimly lit Calle Officios. The front of Al Medina was equally in the dark, so much so we didn't think it was open at first.

We stepped inside an inner court yard and sat down on some plastic garden furniture. It was reasonably busy yet the place completely lacked any character. Some middle eastern music would have helped smooth over the cracks.

The food arrived and whilst I we weren't expecting a high standard it still fell short of hitting the mark. My mezze had a few highlights such as fresh baked pitta bread and a tasty potato croquetas but the hummus was a pale imitation, the falafel were like little marbles, the refried beans and rice wrapped in cabbage leaf were just confusing and tasteless. For Julie, her chicken tagine was ok but more Chinese than Moroccan smothered in a sauce similar to Hoi Sin.

They added insult to the crime against our taste buds when they overcharged for our meal by $5. It wasn't much but it was just a little annoying, especially as it was the second time today. My mezze should have been $4 but they had written $9 on the bill. Judging by their reaction when I spotted their error I somehow suspected a scam going on. In a very dimly lit restaurant a four and a nine look conveniently similar when scribbled down messily on a piece of paper .

It was all sorted out in the end without incident.

We were about to walk back inside the hotel for an early night when we heard loud music coming from down Calle Obispo. We both looked at each other waiting for the other one to suggest that we should ignore common sense and instead party the night away. It took us two seconds to agree and we carried on walking down the street to Cafe Paris.

There was a great live band inside playing some really cool music. They were called Corazones de Fuego.

Outside there was a small crowd of locals dancing, having a great time for free! Inside was absolutely packed but we squeezed our way between the tables and got the last seats in the house.

We had to share a table with another couple. Within two minutes they had left but not before telling us they were from Ottawa in Canada, that he was a blacksmith and they were on their way to a Jazz night somewhere else. My God they could talk! We were relieved when they left.

"OK, bye then"

Just as we settled down with a mojito and listen to the band they played their last song!

They all downed tools and their bongo player came around the tables to collect tips or if you liked them enough you could by their CD for $10. Fortunately they were only taking a break and after ten minutes they were back for another set of catchy songs.

After a Spanish couple and then a German couple came and went another couple joined us. They were from Norwich in the UK, although with their broad Och-aye-da-noo accents they were obviously Scottish. They were of retirement age, in their late sixties and were having a blast. They were off dancing next after Cafe Paris.

They were having so much fun. Superb.

We both looked at each other hoping the other one didn't suggest we'd join them. We'd had a long day and were ready to bring it to a close. It was almost midnight and we'd done well to stay the course.

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