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Archive for February 9, 2010

Tuesday 9 February, 2010 – Punta de Piedra to Santiago de Cuba

OK, so the hot water did not work for our morning shower, but we had an emergency car that worked (although it was a tight squeeze for Cliff, who has a longer body than I have and therefore needed the extra head room in the Peugeot Partner. ‘I thought that Paul would need the extra head room!’ I hear you mumble, for quite a different reason.

We started passing limestone hillsides almost as soon as we left Punta de Piedra, classic habitat conditions for Melocactus harlowii. Some 15 minutes after leaving our hotel we made our first stop, S1695. M. nagyi, one of many synonyms of M. harlowii is reported from here. It seemed to be disused a quarry that had once supplied material for road building. I suggested that we’d take a look on what was on the other (south) side of the hill. We soon started seeing Melocactus, uprooted (by a recent hurricane?) lying with their roots exposed on the gravel and rocks. Mike and I replanted one or two but there were too many potential patients for our casualty ward, so we concentrated on taking pictures.

Once at the top of the hill we had a stunning view up and down the coast line, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Great opportunities for pictures of cacti with the sea as background that I try to snap when ever the opportunity arises. Other cacti included Pilosocereus brooksianus, Stenocereus fimbriatus (s.n. Rittercereus hystrix), Cnidoscolus sp., Harrisia gracilis (?), Selenicereus pteranthus and  an Unidentified green shrub with small glochid-like ‘spines’ along the bottom of the leaves that caused just as much irritation as walking through a patch of Opuntia microdasys. Nasty!

On the other side of the road was an impressive stand of Royal Palms (Roystonia regia) to which we had been introduced in the Havana Botanical Garden.

Eight minutes later we could not resist another stop, S1696, as the road turned round a rocky outcrop covered in Agave anomala (?). We now had the sea immediately to the right (South)  of the road and steep cliffs rising some 30 meters high to our left. M. harlowii ‘ nagyi’ was still around, showing us how variable it can be in body and cephalium size and epidermal colour. At this rate, we would not reach Santiago de Cuba for the next few days! So we exercised a rarely seen amount of self discipline and included some very brief stops for scenery and plants under S1697. 

Initially the Melocactus was our fairly constant companion, accompanied by Leptocereus sp? and later by Consolea or Nopalea sp. There were Melocactus of all ages, from young seedlings to plants dying of old age. Many of the older plants had a yellowish chloritic look about them. May be their limestone habitat was blocking some nutrients used to produce chlorophyll, or perhaps the cephalium development had reduced / stopped the plant’s ability to replace chlorophyll as it aged.

Time was ticking on and we again forced ourselves to have longer stretches of driving between stops, as there was still a long way to go to Santiago de Cuba, where we needed to ex-change our emergency stand-by car for a better solution.

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest town on the island and was buzzing with rush hour traffic as we entered the city. So where was the car rental garage? Asking directions proved that our Spanish in this respect had improved to the point that we’d receive a salvo of words and sentences that were completely unintelligible to us, like machine gun fire. A Rastafarian gentleman (called Hylie of course) knew exactly where the garage was and had joined us on the back seat of the car almost before we had the chance to invite him in. He was quite pushy in advertising his Cassa particular (private bed & breakfast accommodation). We told him that we’d be ages, filling out paperwork and that we had already had booked into the 5 star Hotel Santiago (we had not – it would have been far outside our budget!). And so we exchanged our Peugeot 206 for a much more recent (only 38,___ km on the clock!) and larger Peugeot. That would do nicely except that it was due to have a service after 500 km and before 800 km had been added. We agreed that we would come back this way from Baracoa, about as far east as we could go.

It seems that this car had also been in the wars and was probably an insurance write off in the Netherlands as the original dealer’s advertising slogan, in Dutch, was still pasted on the rear window. But in a country where a car’s age is measured in decades rather than years and only the tough survive, we were glad to have an acceptable set of wheels.

Next we needed a hotel. We tried several large hotels but in each case were told that they were full up. We later learned that a cycle race (Tour de Cuba?) was due in town. Having been disappointed again in our search, the security guard, Andy, at the last hotel that we knew of, slipped us an address card and suggested that he’d meet us in 15 minutes time when his shift finished and he would take us to his home that was a cassa particular. A little risky, but we had run out of options.

It was a great experience to take a look inside one of these ‘not-so-new-on-the-outside’ houses. Very nice and comfortable, if a little dated and lacking in some of the many comforts found in European homes.  A very attractive price reflected the basic nature of the accommodation but we were a little concerned on arrival that Mike and I would have to share the matrimonial double bed. Still, worse things happen at sea and it would only be for one night. But where was Cliff going to sleep? This was going to be arranged. And where could we go and have a bite to eat? They would take us to a typical Cuban restaurant at eight. Excellent.

We settled in while waiting for dinner time to arrive. Andy explained that the place he was taking us was for Cubans, not tourists, so that we would need to pay in Cuban pesos that strictly speaking was only available to Cubans. Tourists could change their currency from Euros or GBP into CUC$, tourist only money. There are c. 24 peso to the CUC$. Andy offered to change some GBP 10 in CUC$ into Cuban Pesos. Excellent. Everything seemed to go very well. Then it turned out that we were taking Andy, his brother and their wives out to dinner. I was feeling quite wealthy with some 400 Cuban pesos in my pocket, but these soon started disappearing as we had to pay 15 pesos admission each to get into the restaurant, to cover the cabaret that would start later. Fortunately I got this money back even before we had sat down as the bouncer pointed out that Cliff and Mike, in shorts, were not suitably dressed. Andy’s wife thought that it was a ploy to get more money out of us, as our attempt to blend in with the locals had obviously misfired.

Never mind, on to the next restaurant, where admission was only 10 pesos each. Each time, Andy would tell me the cost of the next step, I’d hand him the money and he, as Cuban, would pay the staff. The 400 pesos had gone by the time that we left. We had eaten enough, chicken with rice, a tomato salad, chips and a can of Crystal beer each, for seven people, all for about GBP 10. As it was not  possible for all seven of us to fit in the car, Andy and his wife took a bus home. 2 CUC$ please. It became clear Andy’s home was no longer an officially registered cassa particular. His wife had had some health problems and no longer wanted the continuous knock on the door from tourists, some looking for a cheap place to bring their recent (5 minutes earlier) Cuban girlfriends to. Understandably.

As a result, we could not park our rental car in front of the house, as this would attract attention from officials policing such matters. Instead we needed to park in a nearby side street where friends would keep an eye on the car. Two more CUC$ please.

Where was Cliff going to sleep? At Andy’s sister-in-law’s house across the road. The room there turned out to be a lot more spacious than our room at Andy’s; large enough to add an extra single bed, so that new arrangements saw Mike and I taking the room with two beds here, while Cliff took the room at Andy’s. Another 25 CUC$ please.

The agreed price had included breakfast, but when an excellent cooked breakfast had been enjoyed came the request for another CUC$ 3 each. We had reached the point of ‘enough is enough’ – the European milk-cow was dry.

I know that Alain Buffel had a much more positive experience with Cassa Particulares during his stay a few years ago. Perhaps, with time, things had changed? Perhaps our experience is not typical? In any event, we had enjoyed a night in clean accommodation where we had felt safe. We had been fed and watered and by the end of the adventure we had paid in total roughly what we would have paid for a triple room, dinner and drinks in a hotel. We had seen a Cuban home and family life for real. No harm was done. However, I’d rather spend the money in future in a hotel where the sign at Reception and the menu in the restaurant tell me how much we’ll spend. Cassa Particulares might still be considered when hotel options run out.

On Wednesday we’ll go Guantanamo!