¡ Viva Cuba !

Tuesday 12th January 2010

With the alarm set for 5am I bounded out of bed enthusiastically. Julie followed later but a little less excited.

It was still dark, damp and very cold outside.

When we found ourselves sitting for breakfast in the 24 hour racket club before 6am she began to question our sanity!

Ahead of us today was a very long day visiting three Cuban cities of Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, covering almost 400km in over 16 hours.

We only had time for a quick coffee and grab a few pastries to take out because our pick-up was due outside the foyer any minute. We didn't have to wait long as our little scruffy coach soon arrived.

A short curly haired guy dressed all in denim, wearing sunglasses in the dark, stepped out and called out our room number.

Being the first to get on the Goviatours bus we had the pick of the seats. It's strange how having too much choice turns a decision into a dilemma.

After quite some deliberation we sat in the back seats. Then our denim clad guide, who was called Elio, said "it maybe too bumpy in the back". So we moved to the front two seats just before we arrived at our next stop.

The further west we travelled the deeper we descended towards the budget end of the market.

It took us 3/4 hour before we reached the last resort (in more ways than one!). It was by far the least attractive. The sun had risen but our pick-up hadn't. Julie and a few others took advantage of the delay and used the hotel's facilities. She came back disgusted by the cleanliness of the toilets.

"Our resort might have been a Sandals resort in its past life but this one is definitely a FlipFlop resort!" we joked.

Eventually the absent couple flip flopped onto the bus looking like they had just got out of bed (that'll be because they just had) apologising for being fifteen minutes late.

Once we got off the narrow spit that was Varadero we turned south towards Cárdenas.

Welcoming us to the town was a huge crab the size of a tank. Elio explained that it's famous for its blue crabs.

"It's known as "La Ciudad del Cangrejos" the City of the Crabs" he continued. During the rainy season there's a natural phenomenon that takes place all over Cuba where literally thousands upon thousands of land crabs migrate to the sea.

It's also known as the "Ciudad Bandera" the Flag City after the Cuban national flag was first used here during an independence skirmish in 1850.

It's also even known as the City of Horse Drawn Carts, yet another claim to fame.

The streets were quiet as we drove through.

We assumed that most people were inside the many loaded coaches on their way to Varadero. Most who work there live here in Cárdenas.

Elio explained that the city was laid out in a grid plan positioned just in the right direction to allow any cooling breeze to fill the narrow streets.

He was so full of information.

In fact he never failed to have something to say pointing out everything of interest and everything that wasn't of interest.

He even came up with one of the best lines I've ever heard a tour guide say "and on the left hand side you'll see a lady carrying a cabbage."

I'm sure he realised how stupid he sounded as he laughed quietly to himself before recovering with "Ooh, look, horse and cart"

You couldn't fault his enthusiasm for making sure we didn't miss anything and that we were always informed.

We drove through Cárdenas heading south through a flat lush green landscape, an area of plantations.

All of which Elio would identify for us, sugar cane, banana, guava, avocado, mango, papaya, beans and even a potato plantation!

Julie's eyes lit up! She admited to have been craving a baked potato ever since she discovered the scarcity of the spud in Cuba.

The high number of disused sugar mills suggested that sugar cane once dominated this area but now the land use had been diversified to feed the nation.

We drove through a few small towns such as Jose Smith Comas, Maxio Gomez and Espana Republicana.

Every now and again Elio would point out huge state schools, ones that looked big enough to house the entire population of all the nearby villages.

In the middle of nowhere we past a large Medical School which was currently filled with over a thousand of international students, most of which were from Pakistan.

Elio explained that after the devastating Kashmir earthquake in 2005 Castro sent over seven hundred Cuban doctors to help with the relief work. They then offered a 1000 scholarships to medical students.

Before long we had reached the autopista, road CC that runs the whole length of the country from Pinar del Rio in the west to Baracao in the east.

Elio pointed south towards "Playa Giron" he said "that's where you'll find the Bay of Pigs"

We all looked at each other with interest but for someone who had a lot say Elio didn't elaborate. He just said "You know? ... the Bay of Pigs .. you know ?"

We tootled down the well maintained dual carriageway passing on the roadside several opportunistic locals selling strings of garlic, onions and most peculiarly large slabs of homemade cheese.

An hour down the autopista, around 9:30am, we pulled over at a roadside cafe called Te Quedaras Lajas. We were quite hungry. The pastries we had brought were eaten before we had left Varadero!

We all had coffee and sandwiches except for the young couple who were going for the hair of the dog with two cold beers.

The cafe had a little homage to a famous Cuban singer called Benny Moré. We were a few miles away from Las Lajas, his birthplace.

Elio filled us in on his story. He came from very humble background to become Cuba's most influential musician.

In the fifties he became the band leader of La Bande Gigante, literally the big band. They even performed at the 1956 Oscars ceremony. Now that's an A-list appearance.

Back on the road we only half an hour away from Santa Clara.

The reason for our visit was because the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution was fought here. The Battle of Santa Clara took place around the 28th - 31st December 1958 when a small battalion commanded by Che Guevara entered the city. Out numbered by 10-1 their ultimate victory here gave birth to the Che legend.

A side story to this was he was joined by another group lead by the only other foreign commandante in the revolutionary army called William Morgan. He was an American but with a name like that he must have been of Welsh decent.

In a famous scene a bulldozer was used to derail a train loaded with reinforcements. They took the captured soldiers prisoners and seized the weapons. Hours later the battle was won and within 12 hours Batista fled the country. Castro declared victory on the 1st January 1959.

The sight of the train derailment is now a monument. The Tren Blindado still has four carriages and the original bulldozer in place.

We arrived at the Che Guevara memorial and mausoleum on the outskirts of the city.

As we parked up Elio said that it would be best to leave our bags in the bus as we wouldn't be allowed to take them in. "Don't worry" he reassured us "Hunko (the driver) will look after them"

Next our cameras were nationalised. Elio asked us all to hand over our precious cameras explaining he had to register them with the officials. Elio could sense our collective reluctance and felt that he had to say "You'll get them back after the mausoleum, you just can't take them inside."

We walked towards the back of the memorial and joined a small queue. The entry to the mausoleum was being to regulated into small groups so we took our time to reach the door.

Eventually we stepped inside. It took quite a while for eyes to adjust to the darkness. They were drawn first to the eternal flame at the end of the room. It looked dramatic in the subtle lighting in what felt like a cave. Elio drew our attention to a memorial wall of 17 plaques bearing the names and the image in bas relief of the comrades who died with Che Guevara during his ill-fated revolution attempt in Bolivia. It was quite eerie having the faces of the fallen staring back at you.

All the plaques were of the same design, made of brass and all had a red rose placed to the right. A dim beam of light illuminated a five pointed star in the top right corner. "The colour of the flower is changed on their birthday and the anniversary of their death" said Elio.

"All are equal but some are more equal than others" said Orwell and so it was with Che's plaque, the same as all the others but set on it's own as a centrepiece.

There was another granted the status of being more equal. One who's son was an artist and had been given permission to create his own plaque in tribute of his father. Not all were Cuban nationals either but they were all honoured as Cuban heroes.

The memorial was built in 1988 to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Battle of Santa Clara. It had also been 21 years since Che Guevara's death. At the time they didn't have his remains. It was only years later in 1997 when Bolivia discovered his body and seven other comrades in a mass grave did they return to Cuba.

We left the mausoleum and crossed over to the other side where the museum was housed. All the artefacts and photographs of Che's life from his childhood in Argentina through to this death in Bolivia were fascinating.

His school report, photograph's from his motorcycle journey across South America when he was a young man, a small collection of classic books including Mark Twain which he read in the Sierra Maestra mountains, his uniform, beret, pistol holster and many more.

After the museum we made our way onto the memorial itself to take a closer look. Elio returned all our cameras and we all clicked away whilst he described everything in sight.

It was a trio of tributes. The first was a monolithic slab with the entire letter Che Guevara wrote to Fidel Castro when he left for Bolivia inscribed onto the grey marble. Elio took in upon himself to translate the entire 600 word goodbye letter.

"Fidel, at this moment I remember many things " began Elio from the top.

Che reminisced about their time together in Mexico planning the revolution in Marfa Antonia's house.

He then resigns from his posts in the government, his rank of comandante and renounces his Cuban citizenship explaining that he has to leave.

"Other nations of the world call for my modest efforts.... the time has come for us to part."

He then had a prophetic moment and wrote "If my final hour finds me under other skies, my last thought will be of this (Cuban) people and especially of you."

Elio was noticeably tiring during the second half of the letter but he persevered to the end.

The letter was signed off with "Ever onward to victory! Our country or death! I embrace you with all my revolutionary fervour. Che"

Next up was another tall slab of marble. This one had standing on top of it a large (0ver 10ft) bronze statue of Che Guevara. He wore his trademark beret and military fatigues but was looking more shaggy than usual.

This would have been his appearance during the Battle of Santa Clara, rifle in one hand and his injured left arm in a sling.

It was a broken arm he sustained falling off a wall a few days earlier!

Below the statue was written Che's catchphrase "Hasta la Victoria Siempre!" ever onward to victory.

The third and final installation of the memorial was a large mural depicting many scenes from the life and times of Che Guevara the Cuban Revolutionary. It showed images from the Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos.

Elio pointed out the scene of the famous train derailment.

If it wasn't for the bulldozer in the bottom right corner I wouldn't have identified it.

"Are we going to Santa Clara to see the train monument?" I asked

"No, we have no time" replied Elio and quickly changed the subject. I was more than a little disappointed.

We had a few minutes spare time to take a few moment to ourselves. To take it all in. As we left we turned and looked away from the memorial across the large expanse of the military square towards two billboards.

They read "Che - it was a star that put you here and made you of this people", and "We want everyone to be like Che."

Elio kindly translated.

Back in the bus we left Che Guevara's Mausoleum, Museum and Memorial, moving on to our second city, Cienfuegos.

"Hopefully we'll actually get into the city this time" I mumbled under my breath, still upset that we weren't going to get to see any of Santa Clara itself.

We returned back the way we came, up the autopista to Esperanza and then turned south.

Along the way we crossed over several railway tracks. Hunko took extreme caution in driving over them. There was no barrier or stop signal just a small sign "crucero ferro carril" to warn that you were about to cross the railway tracks.

Elio let us know that we actually drove over one crossing in a town called Crosses, "Cruces" which he found funny.

Onwards and southwards we continued through a town called Palmira. We drove through it's central plaza which had a tiny church with a very ornate turquoise building next to it.

We didn't have time to stop and take a photograph but Elio did take my camera and waved it out the window as we were passing.

As we approached Cienfuegos we passed a billboard with the images of Camilo Cienfuegos. Strangely it wasn't he who liberated the city during the revolution.

After the Battle of Santa Clara William Morgan marched on to the city of Cienfuegos whilst the others headed to Havana.

To complete the side story of William Morgan, at the time he, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were equals, comrades, all of the rank commandate leading their troops but their paths took a different turn after the revolution.

Camilo died in an air crash in 1959 and was immortalised as Cuba's most loved hero. Che went on to become the Minister of Finance and the international revolutionary legend.

William Morgan must have fallen out of favour because post-revolution he was given a frog farm to manage!

Sick of frog spawn he soon became disillusioned and got involved in the counter-revolution in trying to overthrow Castro. It was only a matter of time before he was arrested and then later executed in 1961. Quite a sad ending really.

We soon rolled into town, down Paseo El Prado and parked up next to a café named after Benny Moré. We had no time for a coffee however as we crossed over into the middle of the Prado to take a closer look at a bronze statue of the man himself.

I don't know if it was meant to be a life size sculpture but if it was then Benny Moré was less rather than more.

He appeared short and slightly built.

Elio began to unload his tour guide spiel "Cienfuegos is known as the Pearl of the South" he began.

We followed him down Avenida 54, a street filled with market stalls selling all the familiar handicrafts, similar to what we saw in Havana.

We didn't appreciated the beautiful architecture at first. The houses behind the market stalls didn't appear to be anything special.

It was not until we lifted our gaze above the touristy nick nacks did we see the houses of Avenida 54 in all their splendour. Fully restored with wrought iron balconies, decorative plaster moulds and painted in soft pastel colours they were beautiful.

It was difficult for Elio to keep the group together. Five couples were walking down the street at their own pace. Some wanted to shop, some were distracted by the gorgeous architecture, others were just slow walkers.

Undeterred Elio continued his script. "The city was founded by French refugees from Louisiana, who fled to Cuba to escape the American civil war " he explained, talking to whoever would listen. "The centre of Cienfuegos was added to the UNESCO Heritage site in 2005. " he carried on.

In a while we had reached the end of Avenida 54 and entered the Parque Jose Marti, Cienfuegos' main square.

We stood at the corner for a while as Elio continued with the history of Cienfuegos. Whilst he waxed lyrically about the price of sugar cane he was approached several times by people who knew him very well. He was a popular guy.

The main building in the square was Palacio de Ferrer. We didn't have any time allocated to walk around it but we did pop inside very briefly to look at the entrance hall.

After Elio's build up I was expecting something more spectacular.

There was an impressive stained glass window in what was otherwise quite a plain hallway.

Back outside we crossed over into the Parque Jose Marti. In it's centre there was the obvious statue of Jose Marti. There was also a map of the region showing the Bay of Cienfuegos.

It was obviously of some significance but Elio seemed to gloss over it just explaining it as "a map". He did mention that Jose Marti was a freemason. It seemed to commemorate the founding of the city in 1819. Another date on there was April 22 1955 and the words "Ateneo de Cienfuegos".

Whilst we were walking around the park Julie noticed that a young female was paying particular attention to me.

"Watch out, you're being sketched" warned Julie.

We tried to ignore her but she eventually walked up to me and asked if I liked it. I almost fell over with the pressure of not laughing out loud when I saw it. It was shockingly terrible. It looked like a five year old had attempted a portrait. "It's not finished yet" she said. Concerned that she actually may of had the intelligence of a five year old I thanked her and turned her down gently.

The eastern side of the square was dominated by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Once again we didn't have any time allocated to have a close look.

We were heading to towards Teatro Tomas Terry at the northern end.

We wondered if there was another Welsh connection in there somewhere!

There were a few billboards dotted around the square. The mandatory Che Guevara was up in one corner.

Another in the opposite corner had the mugshots of five men with the word "Volveran" (They will return) beneath them. It almost didn't need translating. It look like the "Free the Cuban Five" campaign that it was.

They're all in prison in America after being caught "spying".

To the side of the theatre there was a gift shop and cafe with toilets where we had ten minutes of free time to have a browse around, have a drink and use the facilities.

After sharing a bottle of sparkling mineral water I popped next door inside the Teatro Tomás Terry paying $2 for the privilege whilst Julie queued to pay $1 for a pee.

A marble statue of a very laid back Tomás welcomed me to his theatre.

It was built posthumously by his family to honour of his love of the theatre and was designed by architect Lino Sanchez Marmol. It opened to its first performance in 1895 of Verdi's opera Aïda.

It turned out that Tomás Terry, a local plantation owner and former mayor of Cienfuegos was Venezuelan not a Welshman.

I only had time for a quick look inside. I stood at the back row and took a few photographs. It wasn't a very large stage but it was big enough to host world legends such as Enrico Caruso and Ana Pavlova in their heyday.

It was impressively decorated in lush cream and gold and had a beautiful fresco of angels by Camilo Salaya flying high above the audience.

It was deceptively spacious with enough seating for a thousand people. Once I had seen all there was to see I returned out into Parque Marti where except for Julie who was standing outside the bus waiting for me. I had busted my ten minute allowance.

Back in the bus and now behind schedule we drove off to our third and final city, Trinidad.

The scenery along this route was the most picturesque of the journey as we drove along simple roads towards the Sierra del Escambray mountains.

"The counter-revolutionist hid in these mountains" said Elio. It was known as the War Against the Bandits where ex-Batitsta soldiers and disillusioned revolutionaries such as William Morgan joined forces. Their defining moment was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

It all went down hill from then for them.

Whilst ourselves rolling down hill, through the town of Gavilan, we almost ploughed into a horse drawn cart which recklessly decided to do an u-turn in the middle of the road.

Hunko swerved and braked suddenly. Our jaws dropped to the floor as we literally missed the back of it by inches. Even Elio was lost for words briefly before regaining his composure and responding with the observation "Idiot!"

Whoever was driving the cart must have thought he was still in the fields. Or perhaps he was just not used to traffic. There was a noticeable lack of cars on these roads.

Most of the local transport was done on horseback or by horse drawn carts which gave the area an exciting cowboy atmosphere.

A little further along Elio drew our attention to what looked like telegraph poles but they weren't, they were naked palm trees, decapitated tree trunks, stripped of their foilage by Hurricane Gustav, Ike or Paloma which all battered Cuba in 2008.

They were such a peculiar sight.

We followed the road south until we reached the coast. It was a strange thought that we had just travelled the entire width of the country. It was also a buzz to see the Caribean sea for the first time.

An hour after leaving Cienfuegos we arrived at Trinidad.

The UNESCO world heritage listed historical centre was waiting for us to discover it's narrow cobblestone streets and colourful colonial buildings but first ... it was time for lunch.

It had gone 2pm; almost seven hours since we shoved down our breakfast pastries, so we weren't about to complain.

We caught a glimpse of the old streets as the bus parked up and we walked a short distance to a restaurant called Trinidad Colonial on Calle Antonio Maceo.

It had a small bright courtyard where you could dine in the sunshine. Inside it had a faded colonial elegance with linen table clothes, dark teak furniture, chandeliers and oil paintings on the walls.

A table for ten had been set for our anticipated arrival. We all sat together as a group which was the first time we got the opportunity to talk amongst ourselves. I'm not much of a conversationalist but I managed to sustain some small talk for a while without coming across as if I couldn't care less. Or at least I hope I did.

We all just talked about the weather and where we were from. We had a Dutch couple and three Canadian couples from Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal. The most interesting couple weren't the youngest but the oldest. They were both Greek and emigrated later in life to join their son who had moved to Canada.

The food was included in the price of the trip so we were given a fixed menu. The choices were beef, chicken, pork or you could pay an extra $18 for the lobster.

The forgotten veggie option which they didn't mention was an omelette. Julie plumped for the pork dish. It all tasted fine.

We had spent almost an hour eating our lunch and we were all itching to get out into the streets of Trinidad.

Eventually Elio returned to collect us and we finally got to see what all the fuss was about. We followed him down Calle Antonio Maceo.

The streets were fascinating. The first thing to grab you were the colours, with each house painted in a different shade. Their windows were shutters with attractive wrought iron guards. The rooftops made of aged terracotta tiles. It was so beautiful.
Adding even more colour to the scene were the classic cars cruising down offering themselves as photo opportunities not to be missed.

People were outside their homes just hanging-out talking or playing backgammon. Others were watching the world go by through the bars of their windows.

We reached Calle Simon Bolivar and turned uphill towards the central square Plaza Mayor.

There were several handicraft stalls along the route to cater for the shopaholic tourists. A few traders didn't even have stalls they just sold whatever they had out of the bags they had carried.

About halfway up we stopped at the entrance to a large colonial residence formerly Palacio Cantero now the Museo Historico Municipal.

As with most of Trinidad it was built on the profits of the sugar cane plantations.

As we entered Elio explained that there was a great view from the watchtower over the rooftops of Trinidad but it would proably take 15 minutes to queue and climb up the steep and narrow steps. It was as if he was trying to put us off the idea!

To be fair though we were given the choice. A) a guided tour of the museum by Elio, narrating in detail the history of Trinidad and the area or B) take our chances with the steep steps.

Julie and I had a different need to fulfil. I just had to climb to the city's highest point whereas Julie just wanted to keep her lunch in her stomach and her two feet on the ground. We agreed to go our different ways for the next fifteen minutes.

The Winnipegians also decided to go for the view. We queued for what felt like ages. They were limiting the number of people who could go up to half a dozen. Finally our turn came.

The staircase at first weren't bad, wide and easy but they soon became challenging.

As I walked over a narrow wooden bridge suspended above the gift shop on the second floor I said to myself "It's a bloody good job Julie didn't come up here" It was one step short of being a rope bridge.

I literally scrambled up the near vertical steps at the end, eventually emerging out of what felt like a trap door.

All the effort was of course worthwhile. The views were breathtaking.

Looking North I could see how Trinidad was nestled between the lush green hills of the Escambray range and the glistening coast to the south.

To my left the bell tower of the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco rose above the earthy red roof tiles. One of the few structures to do so.

Looking out towards the east I looked down on Plaza Mayor dominated by Iglesia de Santisima, apparently the largest church in Cuba.

Trinidad was much smaller than I imagined. I could see the entire city from here.

I spent a few minutes absorbing its beauty before having to tear myself away and descend back down the trap door crossing the wooden bridge.

By the time I had reached the ground Julie and the rest of the group had moved on to our pre-arranged meeting place at the South West corner of Plaza Mayor.

I had missed all the interesting facts about the city. Julie wished she had. She was all fact factigued as Elio was just finishing his story as I arrived.

"Founded in 1514 Trinidad was one of the original seven settlements established by the first Spanish conquistador to rule Cubs, Diego Velasquez."

We then had just ten minutes of "free time" to explore the area. The group splintered into different directions. Most headed for various handicraft stalls. Julie and I walked around Plaza Mayor.

There were plenty places of interest around or near the square, the Church of the Holy Trinity (Iglesia de Santisima) , the Palacio Brunet (which housed the Museo Romantico), The House of the Conspirators.

The centre of the square was an inviting palm tree filled park, fenced off by wrought iron railings. A perfect place to sit in the shade and chill out. Ah, if only we had the time.

There was such a great laid back atmosphere here it made us wish we had decided on a resort on Playa Ancon a few short kilometres away.

We would liked to have spent a couple of days here just relaxing, sitting on steps like the locals and people watch all day.

Instead we didn't have any time at all. Not even to sit down and have a coffee.

We left Plaza Mayor walking past the arched veranda of the mustard coloured Palacio Brunet and towards the bell tower of the Church and Convent of San Francisco.

We were itching to explore further but on checking the time we realised we only had a few minutes left before we had to meet up at the bus.

I didn't want to be late again.

We decided to make our way back especially as we had the challenge of finding the bus.

It had parked somewhere completely different to where it dropped us off. Elio had explained that we would find the bus on Calle Pinor Guinart, one block across and two blocks down from where we stood earlier.

At least it was all downhill as we walked down the gently sloping street.

When we reached the first block we found a few stalls selling T-shirts and maracas.

We tried to avoid a guy who came towards us shaking his maracas trying to get us to buy a pair for $1.

Sat on the corner watching us we three old timers.

They just looked so interesting just sitting there soaking up the day that I stopped and asked if I could take their photograph.

They were more than happy to pose although none of them smiled choosing instead to go for the cool tough guy look. One even wore a cowboy hat.

I then sat down alongside them and rummaged through Julie's pink crochet coin purse to find some small change giving them around 60c each for their modelling services.

We arrived back at the bus at the same time as everyone else. Nobody was late. With the clock ticking we set off for the long journey back to Varadero. A journey that would take us almost five hours.

The sun was already casting a warmer shine across the landscape as we reached the Bay of Cienfuegos. Across the water behind the town of Castilo de Jagua Elio pointed out to us a large dome.

It was an old abandoned nuclear power plant built by the Soviets but never completed.

Retracing the same route we passed a broken down Viazul bus. Julie and I had originally planned on catching one of these local buses as a cheaper option to get to Trinidad. We were so glad we hadn't. An evening stranded in the middle of nowhere wouldn't have been fun.

We were making good time on our return leg until we came to a police road block. What is it with the police that makes you feel guilty even if (like me) you've never done anything remotely illegal. Sadly it wasn't a spot check or anything frivolous but was as a result of something far more serious.

The officer in charge spoke to Elio then directed us off the main road down a narrow lane. The detour was due to an accident that had taken place a few miles down the road at a railway crossing. "Nasty business" explained Elio with a sharp intake of breath.

It was almost dark by the time we reached the autopista. The road suddenly became a more dangerous place.

What ever vehicle that was on the road, be it horse drawn cart, classic car or the work's truck none of them had any form of lighting.

Colliding with something because you simply couldn't see them was a common problem.

We stopped at a roadside cafe just before turning off the autopista near a town called Perico for a "comfort break" or in my case a piss in the bushes behind the public toilets to avoid the long queue. Julie and I then replenished our fluids with two cans of Bucanero beer.

Whilst out of earshot we all gathered together a tip for Elio and Hunko and some tight arse suggested $3 each. We wanted to give more but everyone suddenly agreed on it so we went with the majority and chipped in to the pot.

Back in the bus we turned off the autopista and when we drove through Cardenas we knew we were almost home. Finally, tired and uncomfortable we arrived at Varadero. Unfortunately as we were first on, we were the last off! We had another three quarters of an hour to wait before arriving at Princessa de la Mar.

With only us left in the bus we chatted with Elio. He lived just the other side of Mantanzas but his wife and two sons lived in Santa Clara. He was working hard in the tourist industry to provide a better life for his family.

We wished Elio and Hunko all the best and slipped them another $10 for taking care of us all day, especially over those railway crossings. Always inquisitive Elio wanted to know how to say "Thank you" in Welsh so we taught him the word "Diolch" which he pronounced very well, which pleased him.

It was now 9pm just in time for our 9.15pm reservation at the resort's Italian restaurant. We literally ran to our room got a change of clothes and straight back out again. Tired and hungry the food was very welcomed. The Mozzarella in Carozza, Spaghetti al Pomodoro & Tiramisu , whilst not quite being authentic turned out to be the tastiest food at the resort. Julie had a good chicken dish with what was described as roast potatoes. They weren't quite what we would call roasties but the potato batons were still gratefully received.

Despite being shattered we somehow found a second wind, a surge of extra energy. After eating we decided to have a few drinks in the piano bar. Four hours later at 2am the bar closed. We had been awake for 21 hours! How bloody ridiculous!

It was our last night here and we wanted to make the most of it.

Back in the room I ended up staying awake for much longer because I had switched on the TV to watch the news. A few hours ago there had been a devastating earthquake in Haiti, reaching 7.0 on the Richter scale completely knocking Port-au-Prince to the ground. Reports were coming through of a humanitarian catastrophe with thousands dead. It was alarming to think it happened only 90 miles from the Cuban coast. Although we were never in any danger being over 600 miles away from the epicentre. Ultimately it was estimated that 230,000 people died as a result of the earthquake. I couldn't go to sleep for a long time after the news.

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