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The coral limestone around Cabo Cruz had looked promising yesterday, so we returned, but this time had to pay the CUC$ 5 per person admission to the Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma. When we drove past here yesterday, it was late and everybody had gone home. There was a nature trail and archaeological site (El Guafe) with guides to accompany us on the two hour walk (S1694) all included in the admission fee. Fortunately our Spanish has improved enough to beat our guide’s knowledge of English, which was nothing.

We told her that our main interests were cacti and that Mike was also a keen bird spotter. While she was quite good on the birds, her knowledge of the cacti was less impressive, but at least she could recognise plants in the family and point them out, leaving us to murmur a genus name followed by ‘sp.’, but not at all sure of their precise identity – although we did find some plants that had been labelled by a touring botanists, including a Selenicereus boeckmannii (now a synonym of S. pteranthus). I think that we were on safe grounds with our ID of a gigantic Dendrocereus nudiflorus, with roots sprawling out along the ground for several meters and with Pilosocereus brooksianus that here was a forest dweller growing in the dense vegetation. Of the non-cactoids, we saw a tree that looked like a Ceiba and a Ficus (strangling other trees). We also saw quite a few ‘curly tailed lizards’ Quite a curious tail, was it trying to imitate a scorpion? Or was the waving tail meant to fool would be predators, inviting them to attack the moving parts while the important head and body remained absolutely still?

Very satisfied with our morning’s exploits, we drove to the end of Cabo Cruz and found a snack bar to have a tin of lemonade – honest. Then it was back to Niquero and on to Pilón. East of Pilón we should find a coral limestone terraces full of Melocactus nagyi but alas our car did not get us that far.

The plan had been to find rooms in Pilón. On arrival we learned that there was no hotel in town, but there were some holiday complexes 18 km east of town, along the Caribbean coast.

We had passed one when I spotted the sign to a Cactus Garden. Too good an opportunity to miss!. Chance to see all the local plants (and more?) with suggested names and may be a knowledgeable person to point us in the right direction for spotting them in their natural habitats. There was no one there. As Cliff reversed the car, the gearbox finally gave out.  It had been a ‘very loose’ gearbox right from the start, as was to be expected for the age of the car. Now however, it seemed that the gear stick had jumped out of its gate so that the car was permanently stuck in third gear (or was it second?). We managed to push the car round so that we were facing the road and then, by slipping the clutch, managed to drive it along the main road in the direction of the hotels.

Reception at the first one looked down their nose at us, dressed in our field clothes. A similar story at the second hotel was almost similar – these places were used for block bookings by large travel firms. They had a double and a single at around US$ 218. We were not that desperate. We explained our dilemma to the lady at reception who took pity on us and suggested to go back past the Cactus Garden at the hotel we had passed earlier. They used to belong to the same group as the larger hotels, but in these hard days of financial recession had been cast off and were glad of the business – nice cabaña plus breakfast for CUC$ 48.

They also helped us to ring the car rental firm who immediately agreed to send a replacement car on its way. That car arrived at around 21:45 having driven some 168 km from the nearest depot. By the light of Cliff’s torch the mechanic discovered that the gearshift linkage between the gear stick and the gear box had become disconnected and had been ‘fixed’ before with a piece of wire that had now become undone. We were given a Peugeot 206 with 117,093 km on the clock – well run in, but only as a stop gap emergency until we arrive in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest town, where we will change this car for a ‘proper’ replacement. Closing mileage on our Partner was 114,940.

Anyone coming to Cuba would be naive to think that it is possible to pick up an almost new rental car. It was reassuring that when something goes wrong, it is put right quickly and without fuss. It is perhaps worrying that a car can be handed over to a customer for a 25 day rental period with such defects and that is something that we’ll be discussing in more detail with the people at the desk on our return in Havana after we have enjoyed the remainder of our holiday.

At least tomorrow we are in the right place for a bit of cactus exploration between the hotel and Santiago.

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