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Wednesday, 24 February, 2010 – Sancti Spiritus to Topes de Collantes

At long last, a day with Internet access! Hooray! So you should see all the missing days in the Diaries. We are in one of the strangest and most unexpected hotels in the trip, in a National Park. But let’s start at the beginning.

This morning we woke up in a thick fog, the kind that you might expect in a sauna bath – the outside temperature thermometer read 36C, so it was probably around 30C. Unbearable high humidity, until the air-conditioning in the car kicked in. Later I wound down the window to take some pictures from the car and the lens immediately fogged up with condensation! Our goal today was to get to Trinidad, only some 90 km down the road on the south coast and without cactus stops scheduled to slow us down. We took a bit of time to get out of Sancti Spiritus, because the sign-posted road through town was blocked by the weekly market. So we followed an ambulance that seemed to know where it was going, until it had reached its destination.

We drove again through land that had been heavily cultivated and although there were some rocky outcrops, they were too far from the road to make it practical to inspect them on foot. We were unable to find side tracks to get closer.

At Banao, we spotted a sign to the Empressa National para la protecion de la Flora y Fauna Lomas de Banao, Reserva Ecologica. We passed through a gate on a variable track straight into the mountains, close to the cloud base. All very nicely laid out, with a cafeteria, visitors centre and trail to a waterfall (S1725). Mike was in his element as this was a good spot for bird spotting. Cactus wise, we spotted a few Selenicereus  pteranthus in the trees, including one growing out of a termite nest in the top of a tree.

We continued south through a much hillier landscape than we had been used to seeing since leaving Holguin. But all still cultivated and many small villages all along the road.

Trinidad is supposed to be a major centre renowned for it’s culture and scenic streets. We’re obviously not in tune with tourist preferences. There were some huge ‘hotel cities’ with prices two to three times what we had been paying, for ‘all inclusive’ fun and entertainment. Really not our scene. We decided to head for tomorrow’s target, Santa Clara, and needed to negotiate our way through the narrow streets that looked as broken and dirty as those of any of the other Cuban towns we had seen. No wonder, with regular minor earth quakes and frequent hurricanes and no money or aid to fix the damage. As soon as we slowed down to look for signs, we had a couple of people knocking on our windows with cards for cassa particulares and offers of cheap cigars. No, thank you! 

Eventually we were out of town and after 4 km of level road turned north inland. We had not expected that the narrow road would wind itself in such steep and tight twists up into the mountains. Soon we were near or in the clouds. A couple of viewpoints were useless as there was no view to enjoy in the clouds.

Eventually, and in the mist, we reached the nature park of Topes de Collantes. A wrong turn took us to a Kur Hotel, a massive building built in traditional Russian style. We were soon told to turn around and look for hotels down the hill. I think this was probably a mental home.

There was a village of badly maintained tenement housing, presumably for the staff of the kur ort and of the tourist hotels that we finally found. Yes, they had rooms! in our budget range! With one computer terminal in reception that has internet access!! That will do!!!

Unfortunately, while I could use hotmail to send and receive messages, the page that enables me to update the blog was blocked. It was displayed OK, but would not allow me to enter text. Si I sent the saved up Diaries as an email attachments to Angie who has kindly updated my blog. Many thanks, my dear!

Tuesday, 23 February, 2010 – around Sancti Spiritus

Last night’s downpour stopped around 4:00 a.m. according to Cliff. I, of course, was asleep.

This morning we woke up to brilliant sunshine and had breakfast on the terrace by the pool. Not bad for February.

Reception told us that they had vacancies for us to stay for another night. Excellent!

The thermometer measuring outside temperatures from the car claimed 36 C today.  We think it is one of the many faulty components in the car, but still guess that 30C and high humidity after last night’s rain would not have been far off and made it rather uncomfortable.

We were looking for the Melocactus guitartii population from Manaquitas. We had worked out that the motivator / facilitator behind the Hungarian geographers’ contribution to the ‘Melocactus of Cuba’ book was their work related to the building of dams in rivers to generate electricity and provide water for irrigation. This helped to make our searches more specific for the areas marked on the maps in the book, here and around Holguin. Take the general location from the map and if it is near a lake, look at the location of a dam that created the lake, as it is likely that this was the cause for their visit to the area.

We found the village (hamlet? agricultural project?) of Manaquitas eventually. No signs to say ‘You have arrived!’, but asking a local chap crossing the road ‘Where are we?’ confirmed that indeed, we had arrived. ‘Where is the lake?’ was our next question and we were pointed to a right turn at the T junction. Perhaps we should have asked: ‘Where are the Melocacti?’ We found the lake, on foot, as the track was too rough after last night’s rain (S1722). Not dissimilar to our visit to  S1716 on 19th of February. This time there was no local Cuban to guide us to plats and the shore lie was much flatter with goats and sheep present; not conducive to Melocactus flourishing.

We eventually left disappointed. Looking closely at the map, it seemed that we should be looking past Manaquitas, rather than at the village. We looked at pictures of the habitat and tried to make sense of the position of the lake and hills around it. By driving around the west side of the lake we reached a place that was a good match. Rocky outcrops but with dense spiny Acacia-like vegetation (S1723). We were looking for Agave anomala that was shown growing here in the pictures.  We finally found some with Mike’s binoculars, but on the rocks across from a river that fed the lake.  Back to the car, we met a local gentleman on horseback. Yes, he knew the plants that we were looking for, but at the bridge, across the water, and he pointed to the south.

We followed the track around the lake until we came to a substantial rocky outcrop where we had seen the Agave. (S1724). So where were the Melos? From the rocks, looking down at the lake, we saw a small pumping station and a bridge. Our ‘cowboy advisor’ had given us a fairly accurate account of the Melos that grew here. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours searching in the heat, humidity and spiny shrubbery had confirmed that all the features of the habitat shown in the book were here, except the cacti themselves.

Eventually we acknowledged defeat given the time that we were prepared to set aside for the search. We are convinced that we were at the right location for the Manaquitas population in the book – but we had found no plants. Had they all gone? Or had we just not stumbled across them.

Cliff warned us about more storms brewing up. We had managed to leave al our water in the hotel, so stopped at a snack bar for a burger and cola when the heavens opened up. Another tropical downpour.

By the time it was over we set off to look for the M. guitartii population reported from La Rana. Eventually we found the village, but all the area was heavily developed for tobacco, sugarcane and banana production. Time was running out and we decided to head back to the hotel.

Storms that had threatened did not materialise.

Although we did not see any Melocacti today, I feel that we have a good appreciation of where these plants grow or grew. We can also confirm that if they are still here, as suggested by the locals recognising our description in Spenglish, than they are not abundant, unlike some populations of Melos that we found in Bahia, Brazil.

Monday, 22 February, 2010 – Camagüey to Sancti Spiritus

What a day! Not so good.

Last night’s disco disturbance never took place, so that was a great ending to yesterday.

First priority today was to get the puncture fixed. We asked the porter at the hotel where we might find a ponchero. As Cliff changed the tyre, we discovered that the inside of the tyre had worn completely smooth. This needed more than a puncture repair. In the UK, such a tyre would not be legal. We immediately looked at the other front tyre – again, it looked fine from the ‘outside’, but when we examined the inside, it too was completely worn smooth, suggesting that the tracking of the car was out.

Directions were followed and we ended up at the garage of a rival car rental company. How can you have a rival company in a strict communist country that does not allow enterprise or competition?

Never mind. We were directed to the airport where our agency had a desk. We eventually found the airport and the desk. The manager scratched his head. He had no replacement tyres. He could offer us a Peugeot 206 replacement car, but as we knew from previous experience, this was too small for the tall frames of Cliff and myself. Cliff was unable to look out of the front windscreen up the road! We went through the options: Drive on to Ciego de Avila, where the rep said there was a larger branch with more options, accept a smaller car that did not fit two of us or try to get the punctured tyre fixed. We opted for the drive to Ciego de Avilla, without a spare. The odds against two flats in one day are fairly small, although Cliff, Eunice, Ian and I know it can happen – it did in Baja in 2008!! 

We made it safely to Ciego de Avila. It had started to rain, just as it had done when we drove through this flat boring (sugar cane farming) area a couple of weeks earlier. It does not matter where in the world you are – a grey day with heavy rain is miserable, never mind a temperature of 23 C.

We had asked in Camagüey if they could phone ahead to ensure that new tyres would be available in Ciego de Avila. They explained that this was not possible, as the Ciego de Avila office, in a hotel, did not open until midday

We stopped for a cola as we entered the borough of Ciego de Avila, as we would have been too early, then had some trouble finding the hotel, so that we arrived around 12:45. Security told us that there was no one from the rental company on site as yet. When would they arrive? ‘May be at one, may be in one hour…?’ a shrug of the shoulder ….. This did not appear to be a ‘branch with more options’, more likely a hotel based booking desk with a depot somewhere else.

We decided to drive on to Sancti Spiritus that we had pencilled in for a two night stop anyway and that has a branch of our rental car firm. We arrived in pouring rain. Mike spotted a sign with the Islazul logo on it. This is the chain of hotels that we had used most during our stay and that was the most affordable, unlike other chains that catered purely for overseas tourist groups and offered rooms at three to four times the rate.

We arrived at a large complex of small blocks of rooms on a site that in sunny weather would be very nice, bordering on exotic. Yes, they had rooms for one night. We explained our car problem and asked the receptionist if he could help, as he spoke excellent English. Yes, he would. He contacted the local branch of our car rental company and before I had a chance to start the Rum & Coke that Cliff had prepared from his personal store, the call came from reception that the man was on his way and would soon be here. Excellent!

I showed him the problem and discovered that the other front tyre was now also flat! Lucky or not?!

By five o’clock he was back with both punctured tyres repaired, but unfortunately unable to offer replacement tyres today. And unfortunately the hotel was expecting coach parties tomorrow and needed our rooms.

We had vague plans to spend two nights at Sancti Spiritus to look around for four reported populations of Melocactus guitarti that over the years had been reported from north of the town. Later we would go south to Trinidad. His eyes lit up. He would ring ahead and our rental firm office in Trinidad would have tyres or an acceptable replacement car ready for us tomorrow in Trinidad. Time will tell…..

The rain carried on relentlessly, now accompanied by lightning and thunder. Seven o’clock and time for dinner. We arrived in the main reception block to find a coach load of German tourists standing on the stairs. Reception itself was ankle deep in water and there was a nice waterfall down the few steps coming out of the restaurant. With the main restaurant flooded and out of action the race was on to get to the one remaining restaurant at the swimming pool. It was hard to tell the difference, but at least it was dry and we had seats. Just as well, as another coach load of tourists arrived, this time Dutch ones. Fortunately the buffet type setting lent itself well to this scenario and I believe that seats were found for everyone. Cliff entered the wet T shirt competition and won, as he had not bothered to replace his raincoat that had been damaged in Brazil.

We have full stomachs and a roof over our heads in a safe and dry place – although without internet. Things could be so much worse! The weather system that hit here is also affecting Haiti, where its population is trying to cope with the human and material losses of the recent earthquake. I wonder if the hotel staff have concerns about how their family is coping in these rains in Cuba. Our problems pale into insignificance.

No stops and no pictures today.

Sunday 21 February, 2010 – Around Camagüey

As well as being a dedicated cactophile, Mike is also a knowledgeable twitcher, or bird watcher to you. This was his second trip to Cuba, the first, in 2004 was on a birding trip and he fondly remembered an excursion to a near by National Park from that trip.

So today was going to be a bird watching trip – no problem.

We managed to miss the turning on the road from Camagüey that Mike had spotted yesterday on our way in. Never mind, we found an alternative route, but the road was not as good as the map had lead us to believe. Never mind – Cliff & I had seen much worse in Brazil

The area around Camagüey is renowned for its agriculture, in particular sugar cane. But it seemed that many fields had been left to go back to nature where an Acacia sp. was the most successful plant to colonise such areas. Dense almost impenetrable fields were the result, with attempts to clear this pest by burning, to little avail. Where the Acacia had been removed successfully, cattle were grazing. There were some impressive looking trees in the scenery. Some had fallen victim to past hurricanes and included huge trees in the Family Malvaceae. There were also some trees that looked like the African Baobab Tree, or the Brazilian Cavanillesia arborea. Does that occur in Cuba? Is it an endemic? More questions to look up when we get home.

S1720 was for images taken along the track from the main road at El Horcon to the T junction where the right turn would take us to Najasa, a journey that took us about one hour. We saw the Cuban Baobab, impressive stands of Royal Palms and an equally impressive tree from the Family Legumaceae? that was heavy with epiphytic plants.  This tree had Orchids, Tillandsia, at least two species, and two species of cactus: Rhipsalis baccifera and Selenicereus pteranthus. What a plant!

A bit farther along the road (still S1720) a similar tree was covered in Spanish Moss – Tillandsia usenoides.

S1721 were shots taken near and inside the National Park at La Belen, or at least the Ranchero tourist part near the park where Mike had done his twitching and would do so again today. We stopped in the middle of a stand of Royal Palms where some peculiar birdcalls told Mike that the large black birds here were the rare and very localised Cuban Palm Crow. I managed to shoot some video of Palm leaves blowing in the wind, but this was more for the soundtrack of this bird’s peculiar call. At the Ranch, we ordered chicken for lunch and were told it would take about an hour to prepare. Cliff and I spent this time at a shady spot around the pool where I managed to snap three pictures of a female Cuban Green Hummingbird. The birds in the pool proved equally attractive. After ninety minutes of waiting, Mike had returned from his bird watching observations, very pleased with what he had seen. It gave me a better insight into how strange our cactus observations must seem to those that do not share our interest. Most of the bird observations left me cold I’m afraid.

The puncture that we had a week ago at Baracoa had been slowly losing air ever since and was almost flat as we arrived back at the hotel – so tomorrow the search is on for a Ponchero to see what can be done.

I’m told that last night’s disco by the pool went on until 2 a.m., despite Cliff’s two phone calls to reception to complain. I’m told that the music was so loud, with a pumping base line that the rooms shook. I, of course, slept soundly through the ordeal.

As we got back from today’s outing, the music was again on, full blast. Cuban Rap music, rather than the traditional stuff. Despite it all, we managed to down a couple of strong Cuba Libra – a.k.a. Rum & Coke in the UK, all before dinner.

As I put today’s Diary notes to bed, all is still silent on the Disco front. Will the music start as soon as I have fallen asleep? I’ll give you Cliff & Mike’s report tomorrow.

Saturday 20 February, 2010 – Holguin to Camagüey

There have not  been Diary reports for a few days because the Hotel Perkin in Holguin had run out of Internet cards! The internet worked without problems, but the cards that contained the passwords to enjoy 60 minutes of slow internet access (CUC$ 6 per hour) had run out and the hotel staff could not tell us when new supplies would arrive, or indeed when they would be ordered! That’s Cuba!

Today’s aim was to find the population of Melocactus reported in the Melocacti of Cuba book, from La Palma, some 20 km north of Holguin. I had spotted a roadside cafeteria on the road north out of Holguin by that name and a track west that could be the spot. Nothing.

Back at the La Palma coffee shop (seemingly concentrating on the sale of rum, cigars and women) the owner, in fluent American English, told us that the village of La Palma was another 12-13 km to the north, along the main road. He seemed to have some knowledge of botanical names, because when we showed him pictures of our target plants, he spotted the name ‘holguinensis’ and, in scholarly fashion, told us that the name meant ‘from Holguin’, and we should therefore be looking in the town. I smiled patiently and said that we knew all that, but that the name could also mean ‘in the area of Holguin‘ (municipality etc) and that if the name was given by foreigners, it might not be geographically exact or correct. The mark on the map was what we were looking for and for now we were happy to accept the name provided in the book. He smiled also – we had each sort of established credentials.

The map turned out to be ambiguous, suggesting that the turning west was almost opposite the turning east that we had taken yesterday to the well marked Presa Rio Gibara. But his estimate of ’12-13 km north of the La Palma Cafeteria’ was spot on. We took the turning west and after a couple of km arrived in the village of La Palma with a clear crossroads giving us three options. We decided to go straight on.

A couple more km out of town we passed a disused quarry to reach a fork in the road. Left or straight on? We could not decide and parked the car to explore on foot, first to the left, with Mike staying close to the track and Cliff and I stomping off to either side. Pictures in our book had suggested plants growing on a darkish rock substrate, just as we were finding here. I walked over to a clearing to get a view from the hill over the village of La Palma and spotted a couple of Melos. I ran back towards the track and shouted to make contact with Mike on the track. Cliff too made contact with Mike, reporting that he too had found a couple of Melos. They came over to me first (S1719). Then a slight panic as I could not find my way back to where I had spotted the plants. It did not take too long to find them again, but there were not many! Two mature cephalium bearing plants, one with a pink fruit and a number of younger adolescent plants. Pictures were duly taken before Cliff collected the fruit.

Then on to Cliff’s plants (S1719a); one mature plant in a gully and a young seedling on an higher point between shrubs. Not a massive find, but we all agreed, looking at the hillsides around us that the area had every potential for other small clusters like this. Our time budget was against us to find them, as we had to drive some 200 km to Camagüey.

This population of Melocactus holguinensis was remarkable in that plants had an extended lower radial spine, similar to plants of M. ernestii that we had seen in Bahia, Brazil.

Usually the berries of Melocactus are forced out of the cephalium but the pressure of the cephalium’s bristles as the berry ‘inflates’ when ripe. This seemed to be the case for the one fruit that we found. The berry then falls to the ground where ants and lizards seem to open the fruit and facilitate the distribution of the seed. On the plants observed here, the wool of the cephalium was full of seed although there was no sign of the fruits that would have harboured them. An imperfect distribution mechanism in this population?

Next an uneventful drive to Camagüey. We stopped again at S1691; this time S1691a, not worthy of a fresh stop number, but worth mentioning as it provided me with the GPS coordinates that were missing from the images I took of the Nopalea and Euphorbia with lizard and humming birds. There were few Nopalea flowers open, it was overcast and the hummers appeared to have taken a day off. My friend Anole, the lizard, was making his way along the Euphorbia stems, but too far from my camera to be able to improve on the pictures taken two weeks ago.

We again found lodgings at Hotel Camagüey, another of the Islazul chain.

Friday 19 February, 2010 – north east of Holguin

We had spent a couple of cactus-less days now and had to break the trend. At least the weather was cooperating: bright but with a nice breeze and temperature around 20C.

The turn to the Presa Rio Gibara was not too far from our hotel. The Presa is a dam that had created a lake, with the type locality of Melocactus holguinensis at the bottom of it. Just before leaving the hotel, I received an email from Gerard Delanoy, one of the authors of the Melocactus of Cuba book, warning that the road from the main road to the Presa was a poor one, during his visit some years ago. After three months on Brazilian roads, the track was as good or better than most we had been on in pursuit of cacti, and very well sign-posted. We travelled past the usual collection of wooden houses with palm leaves as roofs, past bicycle- and horse-and-cart taxis and ox-carts with cargo such as sugarcane. After some 10 km (t seemed longer than the 8km indicated at the turning) our hearts sank. We had arrived, but the road was blocked by a gate and an unambiguous sign: ‘No Pase – Keep Out’.

I climbed a low hill by the side of the road, outside the fence, from where I could see the dam and a road disappearing over another hill. There were some Agave anomala here that had their picture taken, so that I have at least some plant pictures of this stop. From my vantage point, I could see people in some huts near the gate, standing in their yard and curiously looking at me and the car parked near the gate. The entrance to their yard was outside the barbed wire fence, but they seemed to be able to stroll into the fenced off area. In fact, there did not appear to be any officials from the Electricity Company that controlled the dam and lake. Time to try out my ‘Spenglish’.

I greeted the elderly gentleman standing in the doorway of his cottage and explained that I lived in England. Did he understand English? ‘Si!’ Great! Later it transpired that his response to most of our questions was ‘si.’ A young boy ran off and came back with a young man. I showed him the pages of the lake and dam plus of a Melocactus in the book. ‘Yes, I know these’ he said confidently. ‘Could he be our guide to the plants? Was that allowed?’ ‘Si!’

He disappeared, presumably to tell his wife that he was going to take us to the lake, and I got Cliff & Mike to join us. We waited and I began to get an uneasy feeling. I was right. He appeared with a big smile on his face and a large bag with three Melocacti, roots and all. Freshly dug up.

We exclaimed ‘Oh, no!’ and pulled sad faces, while trying to smile to say thank you, but it was not what we wanted! We somehow managed to get the message across that we would not be allowed to take these plants from Cuba and not into England. Not allowed. We just wanted to take their picture in their habitat. Was that possible?’ ‘Si!’ and another smile. But had he understood the question?

We stood around a while longer until I motioned that we should go up the hill from where he had come carrying the plants. He took the hint and took the lead with his young son and two dogs. The three of us followed a bit more slowly – this was a steep hill!. Ten minutes later we were on the shores of the lake (S1716), and there, between shrubs and bushes along the lake side, were the plants, just as in the book, but in much denser vegetation.

It was notable that we found the plants to up to ten meters from the water’s edge and just about two meters above it. Our guide told us that the water level was low and indicated that it had been about two meters higher, which would have just about reached the Melos. Yet there were none seen higher up where risk of flooding would be less. Why?

An hour later we were back at the car – great stop with plenty of time for exploring  left. We drove north to the coast, hoping that just as in the south, there would be coral limestone terraces with more Melos. Not so.

The road took us to a gate and the sign ‘Parque Monumento Nacional Bariary’ (S1717) and an attendant who asked CUC$ 8 admission per person plus CUC$1 per camera. We agreed that I would be the ‘official photographer’ inside the Parque and paid for one camera. The purpose of the Parque turned out to be that the bay of Bariary was the spot where Christopher Columbus first landed on 28 October 1492. Baracoa has made the same claim for years but has now ceded their claim to Bariary. For all it’s historical significance there was not much tourist interest. A coach party of Dutch and German visitors left as we arrived and we met one Spanish speaking tourist who was being shown around by a taxi driver. There were probably more staff than visitors. Entertainment included a re-enactment of an Arawak tribesman stealing a wife from another Arawak village before the actors posed with us for pictures, invited us to visit the souvenir shop and suggested that we may pay a tip. Cuba will change a lot once the current regime changes further to a more enterprising economy, and not all for the better!

We did at least establish that the coast here is made up of coral limestone but very low and no cacti, accept the odd Opuntia stricta were spotted.

We tried again, a bit farther to the west, where the track finished at a bay with the town of Gibara on the opposite side, but not accessible from here by car, so after a quick inspection for cacti (non found) S1718 was added as another ‘no cacti seen’ stop. Hopefully such ‘no cacti spotted’ reports can be of help to other cactophiles on their trip. No, I’m not going to report ‘No cacti seen’ locations in Europe!

Thursday 18 February, 2010 – west of Holguin

This is the story of the hunt for Escobaria cubensis.

We know it exists: we have seen pictures of it in habitat (Melocacti in Cuba book) and we have seen plants so labelled in European nurseries and on seed lists.

My usually so useful database and various other sources had just three entries: two going back to 1912 or earlier, all three noting ‘near Holguin‘. The ‘Melocacti of Cuba’ book reports Melocacti around Holguin, some sharing their habitat with Escobaria cubensis. Many pictures show M. holguinensis growing on the ‘lomas’. We are familiar with the term ‘lomas’ from our visits to Argentina, Peru and Chile (e.g. Las Lomitas in the Pan de Azucar), where the term refers to fog oases supporting its unique vegetation. Today we focussed on the one marker to the west of Holguin and things seemed to come together when in our search of the road to San Andres, we saw a sign to Lomas del Cruz. This brought us to the top of an ‘inselberg’ with radiomast / microwave tower (S1712) that doubled up as a ‘mirador’, a tourist viewpoint over the city, where a security guard charged us CUC$ 1 to park – he won’t get rich as we were the only car during our stay of around one hour.  The substrate, serpentine rocks, was right. The vegetation, savannah like grass with short palm trees, was right but between us we saw not one cactus. It did give us a spectacular view 360 degrees round, over the town and surrounding countryside. We could clearly see the Hotel Pernik where we were staying. It clearly showed the San Andres road to follow. This might have been a ‘no cacti seen’ stop, but we were in good spirits as we felt we had seen where to look.

Out on the San Andres road out of town we found a promising looking roadside spot for S1713. We could see the ‘cone’ and the hill where we stopped for S1712, as shown in the photo on page 60 of Melocacti in Cuba, but they were the wrong way round! Could the picture have been ‘flipped’ during the printing of the book? Ironically, the caption to the picture says ‘The tiny Escobaria cubensis is hard to find.’ No kidding! An hour later we were forced to mark this as another ‘no cacti seen’ stop.

We realised that the picture was not exactly taken at this place. We needed to be closer to the two hills. And was the image really flipped during printing or should we be looking at the other side of these two characteristic hills. But that area seemed to be a built up urban area. Then I spotted that the photographer had been in Cuba in 1974-1975 and we know that a lot can change over 35 years. But everything else still seemed to indicate potential cactus country, given what we saw in other pictures and read about accompanying flora.

We took a side track to apparently less cultivated land and explored in a likely looking location (S1714). At least this time we could record finding an Agave, A. anomala, in full flower, but not yet in fruit.

A cyclist stopped out of curiosity. We told him that we were looking for cacti. ‘Not here’ he said, and again mentioned the word ‘lomas’ and pointing to hills in the direction that we had already been and also pointing vaguely towards an area east of Holguin. I showed him the pictures and map in the book, but again language barriers proved too great. Cubans seem to speak in a dialect and at machine gun pace that is beyond our modest language skills.

S1715 and we had taken another side track on the north side of the San Andres road. The track deteriorated near a disused quarry and we explored on foot, no cacti seen – again!

Time to go back, but after we passed the S1712 lomas, we took a look at the silhouette of the hill from the other side. It seems that the picture in the book was not flipped, but was taken in an area that is now built up and part of Holguin. Not knowing what type of lens was used (angle of view) means that we’ll never know for sure where it was taken.

Back at Hotel Pernik, the view of the two hills was remarkably similar to that in the picture. If anything, the photo was taken a little closer, but still in an area now built up.

Does anybody have any information about the continued existence of Escobaria cubensis in habitat?

Tomorrow we take a look for M. holguinensis near La Palma and the Presa Rio Gibara, an area that has four location marked but where the type locality for this species is now submerged at the bottom of a man-made lake that was formed when a dam was built here.

Wednesday 17 February, 2010 – Santiago de Cuba to Holguin

Today was a wet and dull day, ideal for driving through a fairly uninteresting landscape. Eventually we reached Guardalavaca with ‘hotel villages’ along the Playas. But in today’s wet weather, we caught a glimpse of groups of tourists, dressed in plastic bags, around swimming pools where they seemed to be drowning their sorrows, with many glasses and bottles on the table.

As usual for such places, their charges for all inclusive accommodation were ridiculous and we drove on to Holguin, where we found affordable accommodation in another hotel in the Islazul group.

No pictures taken today.

Tuesday 16 February, 2010 – around Santiago de Cuba

We had been so impressed with yesterday’s rest day, the relaxed atmosphere and idyllic setting of our hotel that we decided to spend another day hanging around the pool and stay another night. After dinner, the arrangements were made with Reception. No problem. So our only challenge would be not to spend too long in the sun and get burned.

Wrong! It was overcast when we woke up, it was drizzling as we walked to breakfast and it was pouring down so hard while we had breakfast that we had extra coffees to stay out of the rain and delay the 30 m. dash to our cabanas. In the end I just took off my shirt – I was already in swimming trunks – and made a dash for it while Cliff & Mike hung around reception until it eased off a little. The floor in Cliff’s room was flooded as the rain had come in through the air-conditioning system.

Never mind. We are well ahead of our time budget. We still have to visit the smaller populations of other Melos on Cuba. Next we’ll see the M. guitartii group, including M. holguinensis, probably no more than Cuban members of the M. curvispinus group that is common in Columbia and Venezuela. It occurs around Holguin, our destination tomorrow, where it grows in places alongside the interesting Coryphantha / Escobaria cubensis. Apparently these plants are going to be difficult to find – we’ll need to look for serpentine and pyroxene-andesite outcrops. As though I don’t struggle enough recognising cacti, I now need to be a geologist as well!

The M. matanzanus group is the final group to find, again reported from serpentine outcrops, this time around the town of Matazan. Ironically, while this species is probably the most common Melocactus in cultivation in Europe, it is probably the least common in habitat. It forms a bright red cephalium while still comparatively young and small, and so is a popular houseplant with the general public and cactophiles alike.

The day turned out a strange mixture of threatening skies but no more rain. We are now very well rested! And half of my Cuba presentation for What I Saw Last Winter has been done.

Monday 15 February, 2010 – around Santiago de Cuba

Yesterday we had agreed with the desk that we would stay another night. They like to be paid up front, so this morning I went to reception with my credit card to settle the bill. It appeared that a group booking was due later and they would like us to change rooms. No problem, as we were upgraded from three spacious rooms on the first floor towards the back of the complex, to three cabanas, one each, right at the cliff’s edge with a magnificent view. The view really justified the hotel’s name: Balcon de Caribe.

When we picked up our second replacement car in Santiago de Cuba, last Tuesday (9th), they were keen to give us the best car available, but the draw back was that it was due for its 40,000 km service in 800 km time. It had been too soon to service the car then, but since our pick up we had driven the required kms and now needed to get the service done. We found the car rental place with remarkable ease – normally we try to avoid cities as they can be nightmares to get in and out of.

The service was done in an hour, during that time we went to the supermarket across the road, which was more like a UK ‘pound shop’ but with much less choice and absolutely nothing on offer with a price tag of under GBP 1. Nothing to tempt us here. The coffee shop next door served us an orange juice but coffee was not on the menu. After receiving our drinks and making them last, coffee was suddenly available, so two large cups and one espresso were ordered.

Then it was back to the hotel and move between the side of the pool, 30C in the shade of palm trees, and the cabana, where the air-conditioning was keeping the temperature to a comfortable 20C.

It’s a hard life, being a cactus explorer!