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We showed remarkable restraint in the bar last night. There was a set of seven rum based cocktails on display, each with a peculiar bright colour. We only went round the colours once.

All this happened to the accompaniment of a fine nine piece Cuban band blowing up a storm.

Today was a cactus rest day with Mike taking us to a bird reserve where he had been some six years earlier. We probably got there too late or it was a different time of year or we needed the bird-call recording that his guide on the trip would play to bring out the birds.

Pictures are recorded as S1730 and yes, it was a cactus stop as well, as we found Selenicereus pteranthus, here climbing up tree trunks. Not much else to report other than that we returned to base, had a few cocktails and turned up after dinner in time for another performance by the band, this time accompanied by four dancers and captured on video. Mike even made it onto the stage for a Cuban shuffle.

So this is how the other half live!

On a sunny day we enjoyed a leisurely drive through rather uninteresting countryside – a bit like Norfolk or Holland but with palm trees, to arrive around 1 p.m. at a holiday park back on the south coast of the island. We were concerned that this beach resort would be out of our budget, as we had been using more cash than anticipated, with many hotels claiming that their credit card facilities were not working.

Yes, they had a cabin (basic lounge with TV plus two bedrooms each with two single beds), no, the credit card facilities were not working, but the price was less than we had been paying recently and this was ALL INCLUSIVE!!! Breakfast, lunch and dinner plus snacks and DRINKS AT THE BAR were FREE! Wonderful sandy beach, virtually empty. Too good to miss, so we’ve booked ourselves in for two nights and tomorrow will go to a near by wild life reserve with parrots and the bee hummingbird, the attraction that first brought Mike here some years ago and prompted him to suggest it as a stop if we had time to spare. If we had known about this place sooner, we would have spent three weeks on the beach here before racing around the various cactus sites in record time.

After two nights of internet access, we’re back in a communication black out zone. Although I managed to send a couple of emails to Angie, access to the page to update my blog were blocked. Did I say something to offend the authorities? Who knows. All the reports are lined up to be published as soon as I get home, together with related pictures.

In the mean time, the lack of internet means more time to try the range of cocktails in the bar. Cheers!

The rain continued to come down during the night (or so I’m told). We were also told that breakfast was from 7:00 a.m. but had to wait until 7:15, the opening time indicated on the Restaurant door. About 90% of the guests were from German coach parties, not famed for their understanding of the word ‘queue’. They were OK waiting outside the door, but once inside, the elbows were out.

Today’s cactus agenda was challenging: just two populations of Melocactus, but both vying for the title of rarest taxon of Melocactus on the planet. Why? Because they are probably remnants of taxa that linked the northern island species such as M. matanzanus and M. guitartii to the southern M. harlowii group. The task was even more challenging due to the weather conditions: stormy, dull and overcast.

The taxa, in order that we were going to tackle them were: Melocactus perezaissoi and Melocactus actinacanthus.

Quoting excerpts from the ‘Melocacti of Cuba’ book for M. perezaissoi:

‘… it is also known in Europe under the name M. gloseri n.n. … is very similar to M. harlowii and is its closest relative … 400 to 600 km away …  grows on a very steep, nearly perpendicular and highly eroded rock wall about 50 m high. … in the central part of the wall … and it is extremely difficult and dangerous to approach the plants. ‘

Gloser visited this locality in 1979 and he reports this population ‘not to be numerous’, estimating about 200 specimens.

We stopped at one outcrop (S1726), where Cliff told us what the geology of the reported locality should look like (get the book and read it up for yourself). 

We stopped at another outcrop (S1727) and ….. Mike’s and Cliff’s binoculars picked out Melocacti. I was happy to take a series of pictures that systematically covered the whole of the cliff face and worry about what to keep and what to delete after close examination back at the hotel. Eunice’s 400 mm lens would have been useful here, but then I don’t want to lug the extra weight of such a lens plus a tripod with me. My 200 mm hand held did OK, proved that the plants were there and allowed us to guess that plant numbers had increased if we assume that for every plant we could see in the pictures, there was another, much smaller seedling that we could not see.

I found a way to the base of the cliff, but thought that I would not get anything better from that angle. Cliff went to take a look and I was glad that I followed eventually. Pictures good enough to include in a talk, not to compete for ‘best picture’ or to prove that the plant had all the features from its original description – details such as spine count, fruit size and colour, let alone details of the seed where not available. Still, an amazing stop against all my expectations.

The second target, M. actinacanthus was even more difficult. The authors of ‘Melocacti of Cuba’ say:

‘[it] is an extremely rare species, probably the rarest Melocactus species all over the world. … The distribution area is no larger than two tennis courts. The closest relative to this relict species is Melocactus matanzanus. … One of us visited the site and found only three adult and four juvenile specimens in May 2006.’

So, a rare species by all accounts. We tried to find ‘the tennis courts’ from the information in the book and although we think we were close, failed to find any plants (at S1728). Yet we were privileged to visit the general area and observe and photograph the sort of conditions and human development that would affect their survival, if indeed the species still survives in nature.

We found a bed for the night at Los Cayanes near Santa Clara. The place is set out in buildings with banana and palm leaf roofs, but their prices showed that they were already into the capitalist phase of Cuban evolution. Fortunately their credit card processing machine was working, as we were running low on cash; Cuban CUCs, Euros and GBP notes for exchange.

Even our partial success on the cactus front was voted a success as we cracked open the Rum and Cokes.

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!

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.

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.

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.