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Journal - 31-Mar-2001, Saturday, Las Terrazas - Soroa - Viñales, Cuba
(Trip: Cuba)

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Click for larger image! Las Terrazas. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,tourist,camp,revolution,revolucion,travel,terrazas,soroa,atos,waterfall,vinales,tobacco,tabaco,camping,park,cave,bat,rancho,video,film,biosphere,reserve
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Click for larger image! Cueva del Indio. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,tourist,camp,revolution,revolucion,travel,terrazas,soroa,atos,waterfall,vinales,tobacco,tabaco,camping,park,cave,bat,rancho,video,film,biosphere,reserve
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Las Terrazas
Cueva del Indio
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Click for larger image! Energetic filmmaker, Jorge Pla'. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,tourist,camp,revolution,revolucion,travel,terrazas,soroa,atos,waterfall,vinales,tobacco,tabaco,camping,park,cave,bat,rancho,video,film,biosphere,reserve
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Click for larger image! Fiesta, Fiesta!. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,tourist,camp,revolution,revolucion,travel,terrazas,soroa,atos,waterfall,vinales,tobacco,tabaco,camping,park,cave,bat,rancho,video,film,biosphere,reserve
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Energetic filmmaker, Jorge Pla'
Fiesta, Fiesta!
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We wake early but decide to lie in. I've been feeling a bit stressed since arriving in Cuba - too many new things and not enough time to quietly take it in. Now's our opportunity to relax a little, even if the dirty surroundings aren't conducive to it. Again, I feel the fresh sheets on our mattresses are like little islands of cleanliness in a murky sea.

As we rest and dream, there are loud shouts and screams from children and adults playing outside. More 'eco-tourism' no doubt.

At 09:30, Monica braves the shower. A small shriek indicates the low water temperature. A pool of water starts to spread over the cabin floor.

My turn to use the shower. The stench from the drain is like entering a sewer. My stomach does a quarter turn. When the cold water hits, I also emit a barely controlled yelp. This is going to score high on my list of all time worst bathing experiences. At least the cockroaches haven't returned.

We're quickly packed and anxious to leave the sty. Driving off, we plan to explore the reserve a little before moving on. We head north up the side of a mountain. Apparently there's a restored French colonial coffee plantation and a place where there north coast of Cuba can be seen.

The drive is just a few minutes before we arrive at a tidy, colonial, restaurant and carpark. Crowds of tourists mill around - most arrived by bus. This is obviously one of the tour stops for day trippers from Havana.

There is a long terraced platform that was used for drying the coffee beans, and a large grinding pit. No view of the sea. Apparently the viewing area is further on.

We follow a rough road on foot. The road cuts through the woods, with palms, pines, other trees, and general growth on both sides. The incline is steep enough to feel it in the legs after a few meters.

The walk is very peaceful, with occasional bird chatter, pairs of yellow butterflies fluttering by, the odd lizard scampering away, and large birds of prey gliding effortlessly in the breeze. Shade is afforded every few minutes by clouds drifting in the blue sky.

We reach a lookout point which has quite a good view of the reserve but no sign of sea. The road continues on. Looking at the topography of the mountains, I don't think we're going to see the coast, but the path looks inviting in any case. We walk on.

The walk is rewarded. The air is cooler higher up and the path is mainly flat. We see a number of birds close up and get some great views of the tropical forest that blankets the mountains. The only sound is the occasional, and welcome, breeze. Time has stood still for us but it is probably about thirty minutes later when the path gets a lot rougher, and the terrain less interesting. It looks like we'll have to continue for hours to reach any peaks. Time to turn around.

The temperature increases notably as we descend down to the plantation buildings. The restaurant was originally the plantation residence and has been nicely restored with gardens, etc. Monica wonders what it was like for the French wives that lived in this heat with their large, fancy, gowns.

We get back in the car and hit the road. On the highway we try to save fuel by driving under 85 kph. We've used half a tank already and haven't seen any gas stations. According to the map, the next refill point is in Pinar del Rio, over 80 km away.

The highway bridges have slogans painted on them to remind us how great the revolution was. Underneath each bridge are hoards of people asking for rides. Seems the revolution hasn't got around to addressing transport needs yet.

At the turn-off to our next attraction, Soroa waterfall, there is a gas station. Whoopee! Gas costs $0.90 per liter. Filling half the tank of our tiny car costs $19. Oops.

Two people solicit lifts at the gas station. One is going to Soroa so we take him along. He's a boy of around thirteen. We try to engage him in conversation but only mono-syllabic replies - most of which I can't understand.

The waterfall has a parking area ($1) and restaurant. We still haven't had a proper breakfast so we check out the restaurant. We manage to eat a pretty good meal for $8.

Entrance to the waterfall is $3 for foreigners and 5 pesos for Cubans. We haven't figured out exactly what a peso is worth yet. Monica presents the 10 peso note she got yesterday. The gate staff shy away from it as if it was a piece of used toilet paper. They it's still in circulation but won't accept it from us. From what we've seen, only Cubans are allowed to use pesos.

The path is concreted and winds up and down through the woods. The waterfall itself turns out to be little more than a trickle of water falling about10 meters. There is a small pool at the bottom for bathing. About five people are showering under the waterfall; another twenty, or so, are watching them. Everyone is laughing like this is the most entertainment they've had all week.

Not seeing anything of interest, we turn back. At the top of some steps, I see and hear something moving in the undergrowth. It stops. It's a small black snake. Monica catches up and we watch it slither off - the highlight of the waterfall expedition!

There is an orchid garden nearby but it also costs $3 per person. Feeling disillusioned after the waterfall experience, we give it a miss. We're beginning to feel that Cuba's tourist attractions are somewhat overvalued - both in price and pride. Possibly this is because Cubans aren't completely in touch with what's available in the rest of the world. It's hard to imagine a 'tourist complex' like Soroa, complete with car rental office, being built around a small drop of water anywhere else in the world.

Moving on, we decide to drive all the way to Viņales - a colonial town in the heart of tobacco country. A nearby natural attraction is a cave from which thousands of bats fly out every night.

There are hardly any cars on the highway. I try the radio. Silence. There are occasional billboards saying things like "Revolution in every neighborhood". The billboards are in far better condition, and more numerous, than the road signs - some of which are barely legible.

Despite the lack of road signs, we find ourselves in Viņales at around four-thirty in the afternoon. We arrange accommodation with a friend of the family we stayed with in Havana. The room is quite large and comfortable. $15 a night plus meals. We order dinner for 8 pm - eggs and french fries for $3 each.

The cave with the bats, 'Cueva del Indio', is a few kilometers out of town. On the way we give a lift to a girl of about fifteen who also wants to see the caves. She comes from a town about 60 km away and says she's heard the caves are "linda, linda" ("beautiful"). The road is full of cyclists and pedestrians who seem to have no fear of cars.

The caves have a restaurant and car park. Parking costs a dollar; entrance to the caves is $3 for tourists, 5 pesos for Cubans (a pattern is emerging here). Our passenger, while wearing newish clothes, doesn't look like she's carrying any money. She carries on talking to the parking attendant and doesn't see, or return, our inquisitive glances.

Not sure what to do about the girl, we take the easy way out and walk off to the entrance gate. The caves are well lit though not spectacular. We walk for about 100 meters before coming to an underground river. An outboard motorboat takes us along the river for another 100 meters, or so, where we exit the caves and disembark. The journey on the boat is quite enjoyable as we weave from side-to-side to dodge the formations. As usual, the pilot feels compelled to point out the crocodile head, three sisters, etc.

The bats aren't expected to emerge until 19:45. It's now 17:30. We walk around, exploring the neighborhood. There's a place called 'Rancho San Vicente' that looks like it might be hotel. We enter the grounds. Various citrus trees line the single track road. Green pasture, with palm trees, extends in all directions. A few cabins can be seen dotted around the pasture.

The first cabin has a few rocking chairs outside on the porch. The sun is low in the sky. A perfect photo op. I start snapping away as Monica debates whether to sit in one of the rocking chairs or not.

The door opens suddenly and a smiling face emerges. We ask if there are cabins to rent - more curious than interested. The man is actually a guest and he merrily shows around his cabin. There is a professional video camera on the floor. He explains that his team is traveling all over Cuba to make a tourism promotion video. We thank him for showing us around and move on.

There are a few more cabins and we sneak some pictures of Monica sitting on the porch. Returning to the first cabin, Monica poses in the rocking chair for a photo. Just then, the van of the film crew pulls up and our friend jumps out saying "Don't move, don't move". He disappears into the cabin.

Re-emerging, he asks us if he can film us for his video. Not having anything else to do, we agree - hoping it's not a video to promote Cuba's sex industry or anything like that. I'm handed a cigar as a prop and we shoot a few different scenes of tourists having heaps of fun in rustic Cuba.

Shooting over, we go back to waiting for bats to appear. The film crew tell us about a nearby 'espectacula' (dance show) that they'll be filming tonight, in case we're interested.

As the hour of the bats draws near, a few people show up to watch. We get some expert advice on the flight path, etc., in order to position the camera. Monica's scared that we're going to be swarmed by blood-thirsty bats and that my camera is far too close to the cave entrance.

When the bats do start leaving, there are indeed thousands of them. However, they're so small (mouse sized) and move so fast that all we really see are flecks of light reflecting from their wings. From our distance of about 15 meters away, we're not going to see anything in a photograph - much less be attacked!

Despite not getting any photos it's a good show to watch the bats spilling out of the cave by the hundreds. We're told they're heading for the coast. According to the locals, they return again around six in the morning.

We return to our lodgings and enjoy a great dinner. We're surprised to be served individual bottles of purified water - a good deal better than the tap water we'd been served in La Habana.

Although feeling tired and lazy, we finally decide to go to the show. It starts at 22:30, and costs $5 each. The drive takes us back on the road to the cave. The darkness makes the many pedestrians even harder to see.

The theater is actually a cave sunk into a rocky cliff face. Large mineral formations hang down from the ceiling and shape the walls. The stage is at the back of the cave and is lit with basic colored lights.

There are about six dancers in all, and three singers, all with bright, new, costumes. The bendy toy bodies of the dancers twist and turn like rubber bands to pre-recorded music and live singing.

The show is like a colorful burst of light and music as the costumes swing from side to side, and occasionally up and down. After an hour, it's all over. The small audience claps with little enthusiasm and goes back to drinking. Monica and I drive back to our bed.

Before tucking down, the landlady offers us another bottle of water, in case we're thirsty in the night. Even though we have our own bottle, we're pleased to accept a nicely cooled bottle. Drinking from the bottle, there is a strange smell which my brain slowly identifies as fish. Hmm, I guess refrigeration space is at a premium. Oh well. We wash our hands after drinking.

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Cuba - Rotorua, New Zealand - Christ Church, Dublin - Monument Valley, Arizona - Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - Staffa, Scotland - Huamantla, Tlaxcala, Mexico - Costa Rica - Tule Tree, Oaxaca, Mexico - Fiesta, Mexico City - Making Lacquer, Olinalá, Mexico - Talavera Ceramics, Puebla, Mexico - Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mexico - Lebanon
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