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Santa Lucia Cuba 2008


Thursday, January 17, 2008

The day starts off good – I wake before the alarm and I’m ready quickly – time to finish packing, feed and water the cats, and wait for the taxi to take me to the airport.

I’m off to Cuba again – after I swore I would never return since Varadero really turned me off to the country and the people.  This time I’m heading to Santa Lucia – on the eastern end of the country, close to Guantanamo Bay and home to the world’s 2nd largest barrier reef – right after Australia. There are also supposed to be a school of bull sharks that will come for a feeding at a shipwreck and leave all your limbs intact – how could I refuse, especially when it’s cheap on top of all the promised underwater treats???

Today I will take 3 flights – Moncton to Halifax, sit for 40 minutes, Halifax to Toronto, sit for 3 hours, and then finally Toronto to Camaguey (pronounced Ca-Ma-Way), the largest city close to Santa Lucia – merely a 90 minute bus trip will end my transportation to this tropical land.

In the Toronto airport, I meet Mike and E.B. in the long line waiting to check into Sky Service Airlines – they, too, are travelling to Santa Lucia and have been there before – they are not staying at the same resort I am, but right next door.  We chat for the majority of the time in line and waiting to board.

On the flight to Camaguey I am seated with Sheryl and Larry who are also staying at Club Amigo Caracol, so at least I know that there will be two familiar faces at the resort.

Upon arrival in Camaguey, customs is a breeze – the officer doesn’t even ask me a question – simply stamps my tourist card and hands back my passport.  I am officially in Cuba.  I grab a luggage cart and drag my 78lbs of dive gear and 44lbs of other stuff onto the cart and head outside to find the bus.  On the bus ride to the resort I meet Tina, a windsurfer, who has been to the resort before and loved it – she’s heading down for two weeks this time!!

Once at the resort I meet up with Amy from Toronto and her aunt Judy from Niagara Falls.  Rick from Windsor is not too far behind, and we all decide to check in, dump the luggage, and then meet for a quick drink at one of the resort’s bars.  I’m exhausted, so it is indeed a quick drink, a quick snack at the buffet which has stayed open late for us and then I’m off to unpack and to bed.  The buffet restaurant building is a great place to meet cats – the resort has a number of them to take care of the lizards and mice that would usually be around (I saw none during my visit so the cats must be doing a good job) – by the end of the week, a young girl (Paige) has named each cat and kitten and decided on their family tree.  The youngest kittens are not weaned yet and are desperately cute.  All the cats are very attracted to my beach bag which I expect smells like Eppy and Clancy so I am greeted by a lot of meows and purrs every meal.

Friday, January 18, 2008

I wake early – too early to get up and wander about – so I finish the remaining unpacking and then wander to the buffet about 830am.  As expected, the food is definitely not wonderful – I settle on toast with cheese and a banana – hopefully the fare will improve over the week.  Amy, Judy and Rick are all eating when I arrive and we all discuss our plans for the day.  I intend to get my scuba plans sorted out – find the dive shop, book charters, etc.  And then make any other decisions.

We all attend the general information session, hosted by Jorge from Nolitours.  He starts out by saying he doesn’t like long meetings and then continues to drone on for nearly 45 minutes about things that most people could care less about.  The excursions seem to be full-day events and there is little opportunity to make adjustments to see only the sites I am interested in, so I’m off to find the dive shop 2 resorts away.

Shark’s Friend’s dive shop looks like a respectable little place – the prices are reasonable and they actually ask me for my certification card (something that doesn’t happen all that often).  I learn that I don’t need to pay for any diving until the end of the week when they will give me a bill and I can pay at the hotel for everything through the week.  I say I will be back the next morning for the 9am charter.  I also learn that the bull sharks at this location are seasonal and are not around at the present time – they’ve been gone for 3 weeks at this point and no one knows when they will be back.

Back to Caracol in time to meet up with everyone for lunch and then off to Brisas, a neighbouring resort, so that Amy can have a massage from Frank who apparently has ‘magic hands.’  While Amy is having her massage I wander Brisas to see what the difference is between the 2 resorts (Brisas is about $200 more per week than Caracol) and find little difference.  A bit newer and shinier, but the staff at Caracol seems much friendlier than those at Brisas.

I buy a phone card and call home to let Mom know that I made it to Cuba in one piece.  Moncton is in the middle of a snowstorm that has turned to freezing rain – I am very happy to be in Cuba.

After Amy is all massaged and relaxed, we start walking back to Caracol on the beach – we walk out onto a pier that goes over the water for over 100ft.  The water looks so inviting that I have to jump in, sliding off the pier into the beautiful Caribbean turquoise water – but I misjudge the spacing and end up dragging my back, shoulder and arm on the wooden pier – OUCH!!!  It definitely left a number of bruises and scratches.

The afternoon has worn on, we have met two other people (Neville and Rick#2), we having been drinking all day, and now it’s time for supper. On the way to the buffet I run into Judy, being “carried” by a woman – apparently Judy has fallen into a deep hole – construction that was underway but not properly marked – and was dragged out by the people who are now assisting her to the reception desk to speak with authorities.  Judy is making a huge deal out of it – understandably – but I am sure that her injuries were worth much less bother.  The hotel calls in their doctor and requests that Judy go to her room to wait for him but NO!!!  She must continue drinking and partying!!  Several days later she has still not seen the doctor, nor been able to speak with the manager of the resort to discuss compensation for her injuries.  Everyone at the resort learns of this incident and Judy is branded “the lady who fell in the hole.”

I head to bed immediately after eating supper.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I wake up feeling as if a truck has run me over – too much “fun” the day before, and my bruises and scrapes are felt with every move.  The wind has also picked up dramatically and the ocean is very choppy.  I decide to take the day to recover and not dive after all.  I lay by the pool, cooling myself periodically with a quick dip.  After I eat lunch (a scary hamburger and tasty fries) I start feeling a bit better and even manage to win the daily BINGO game later in the afternoon – the social directors tell me that I will be given my prize at the show that happens that evening.  Oh, how exciting!!!

We have a quick supper at 7pm – this is where I find the pasta bar, which will become my food friend for the remainder of the week – and then wait for the show to begin.  There are a few special events tonight:  1)  a frequent guest of Caracol sings a number of songs karaoke style –we do not understand why he is performing because he’s just not very good at all – but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he is in a wheelchair  2)  the weekly fashion show takes place – several “professional” models wearing poorly made clothing that YES, you can purchase after the show  3) I get my big prize for winning BINGO – a free rum drink!!  WOW – because all the drinks are free at the all-inclusive resort anyway!!

Immediately after the show, I’m off to bed, determined to dive the next day.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Finally, I’m diving!!  I lend a hand to a fellow Canadian who has been diving for 12 years, only has 17 dives under his belt, and doesn’t know how to put his gear together because he usually goes to places that do everything for him – and he’s very proud of that fact!!

Luckily, Gail takes me under her wing – she is a PADI instructor who owned a dive shop in Brampton, Ontario, until she retired four years ago.  She invites me to dive with her and her male companion – I quickly accept the invitation.

The dive shop does not make it easy to get in 2 dives – they do 1-tank charters only.  That means putting all your gear together on land, donning it all, walking out to the boat (at least 200ft away), climbing on the boat, taking off all your gear, driving to the dive site, put on all your gear, do your dive, get on the boat, take off your gear, drive back to the shore, throw all your gear in the water, jump into the water, put all your gear on and walk back to the dive shop where you can once again take all the gear off.  Then you get to come back 2 hours later to do it all again!!  Add in walking 15 minutes in each direction from my resort to the dive shop and I certainly feel like I had a workout today!!!

The morning dive was great – but there were camera difficulties, as my strobe was not firing as it should.  I don’t know what the issue is, but I expect the cable got pinched in travels and needs to be replaced.  GRRRR!!!  All the beautiful corals, sponges and fans you could want and I couldn’t take a photo!!  I did manage a video clip of an extraordinarily large barracuda, though.  This spot is much more colourful than Cozumel or any other tropical location I’ve been to in recent years.  Not too many fish, and certainly none of the super-special varieties, but the most beautiful purple sea fans I’ve ever seen and so many nudibranch that I couldn’t keep count.

A great dive to start off my week of diving. 

The afternoon dive was a whole other story – so many morons who said they could dive but really didn’t have a clue – a Russian man swimming at full speed to the bottom for no reason, a deaf man who didn’t know how to use dive signals and who was underweighted, a girl from Quebec who panicked as soon as she hit the water – a nightmare for the divemaster (and Gail who helped out with the idiots).  We’re just lucky that everyone came back alive.

After the exhausting day, I grabbed supper and went to bed quite early.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The gang had decided to visit Coco Beach today.  We had been told that it’s the most beautiful beach in the area, there were lots of nice little restaurants to eat at, and it would be a really nice outing.  The 6 of us crammed into one horse & buggy and made our way the 8km to Coco Beach, which turned out to be not as nice as the beach our resort was on – full of seaweed and lava rock that would cut your bare feet.  There were 2 restaurants and we ate at the one furthest along the beach – lobster for $15, fish or shrimp for $6.50, or a combination plate for $12.50 – I chose the combo plate and found the shrimp and fish to be wonderful, but the lobster to be much less tasty than the good ol’ Canadian variety.

While we were at Coco Beach, a storm came up, blowing and raining intermittently.   In fact, it rained for most of the buggy ride back to Caracol.  We finished the afternoon off with a lay around the pool and an hour by the bar.  Then off to the buffet restaurant and back to my room to start working on photos and watch some TV before I crashed for 12 hours.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The high winds from yesterday were still around today so we dove in a sheltered spot – not on the reef which is very out in the open.  Nuevo Mortera is the location that the bull sharks are usually seen at – a wreck that is not too deep compared to most of the other dives in the general area – but there were no bull sharks to been seen today, even though we chopped up a barracuda to tempt them if they were in the area.  The divemaster was also kind enough to take my buddy (who flailed around a lot) to finish the dive so that I could take some photos on my own – very nice for a change.

After the dive, I made my way back to the resort, had a one hour massage (for 20 pesos), visited the snack bar for lunch, and spent the rest of the afternoon near the pool and playing water volleyball.

We have reservations at the a la carte restaurant tonight.  It is truly the worst meal that has ever been served to me.  You have your choice between fish, beef and pork.  You are also offered soup.  The soup is unrecognizable – mystery soup – but the broth is tasty.  Between the 6 of us eating tonight, we cover the beef, pork and fish options – no one eats their protein at all.  Corn, or what looks like corn, is on the plate and is very odd in texture.  The rice & beans that I have been enjoying all week long are dry and tasteless.  The one thing we can all enjoy is the dessert – ice cream and a little piece of cake/pie.

We decide to head to Club Amigo Mayanabo next door for their show tonight.  Rick#2 has been staying at Mayanabo, but visiting us at Caracol all week.  It’s his turn to buy drinks tonight!!  The show at Mayanabo is excellent – professional dancers doing several routines in matching costumes.  A house band that is great – and when the band is playing, the dancers pull people out of the audience to dance with them.  It’s very interactive and they include the children as well – much better than what I saw at Caracol or in Varadero several years ago.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Out for my last dive – this time the weather is cooperating more than yesterday and we can head to the reef for a nice long, deep dive.  I never realized that coral reefs could be so deep – I’m used to them being in the 35-50 foot range, but here it seems that everything is at 75ft or deeper, and there’s still lots of life (but not fish).

We enjoyed Mayanabo so much last night that we decide to spend the day on their beach – again, Rick buying drinks with his one bracelet!!  We even head to their snack bar for lunch – hotdogs and ham sandwiches with fries.  I can also buy a real Coca-Cola in the gift shop, so I’m in heaven!!  We also go shopping at the resort’s shops and find some souvenirs to take home – and some rum and coffee.

A quick supper at Caracol – pasta bar, of course – and it’s back to Mayanabo for the nightly show once again.  It’s even better tonight!!  The dancers perform with a pole with ribbons on it – they weave the ribbons around the pole in an amazing twisty-turny dance that they have memorized perfectly.  Because when they’re finished weaving, we all clap, and then they unweave it in double time.  Amazing.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The last day – I start packing and then head to the pool.  I have another massage and then finish packing and dress – time to leave the resort as I have chosen to take the afternoon tour to Camaguey, the closest large city which has historic squares and churches and the like.

I leave the resort around 130pm and we head into the city.  We learn about the countryside as we pass it – all 110km of it – salt marshes, communities, sugar factories, water pipes, etc.  When we get to the city I expect a good tour – after all, this city is 500 years old, there has to be something interesting in it.

The first stop does not disappoint – Revolution Square is full of activity.  There is a huge statue/memorial that represents the military history, complete with a quote from Castro on it.  Apparently there is a military anniversary of some sort on January 28th and they are in preparation mode – every type of military vehicle, boat, helicopter, etc. has been brought out for the display – there are missile launchers with missiles in them!  Quite shocking to say the least.

Back on the bus to visit another square – this time the tour guide doesn’t even tell us the name of it.  There are stages being built in front of what looks like a historic church – all in preparation for January 28th.  There is booming dancing music blaring from loud speakers.  That’s the visit to that square!!  We head into a taverna where the tour guide tells us about the tinajónes of Camaguey – there is no local water supply so they used to have large clay pots collecting rainwater from the roofs.  Those clay pots are tinajónes (singular is tinajón).

Back on the bus – we drive 5 minutes and then it’s out for a ‘walking tour’ that lasts about 5 minutes.  We end the walking tour at the Gran Hotel where we are told we have 45 minutes of “personal time” to shop or go to the roof for the spectacular view.  I choose to shop, but there is really nothing to buy.  I visit the tourist shops, the grocery stores and what I expect is a Cuban version of Walmart where you can find floor tiles next to mattresses next to diapers – very odd.  I head back to Gran Hotel and make my way to the roof – it is a good view of the city, yet not a spectacular view – you can see the beaten roofs of all the tenement-like residences and the churches that would have been nice to see up close.

At 5pm we leave the hotel to go to another taverna – this time we are told to choose between a mojito, a beer or an orange pop – to listen to a band play a few songs and try to sell their CD.  Then it’s back to the bus for the trip to our supper stop.

It’s always been my dream to eat a grilled ham & cheese sandwich at an open air restaurant next to a gas station!!  It’s so fume-filled that I don’t know how we all made it out alive.  30 minutes later we are on our way to the airport – we are the first to arrive so there are no line-ups!!  15 minutes and I have checked my luggage, paid my departure tax and gone through customs – what a breeze!!

I had about 2 hours to shop duty free (more rum & coffee), change my Cuban convertible pesos back into Canadian $ and drink a couple of real Coca-Colas – they have been few and far between this week!!  We board the plane about 20 minute behind schedule but we’re in Toronto on time, about 1230am on January 25th.

I wait for luggage (first on, last off!!) and then make my way to post C22 to wait for my hotel shuttle – it’s -14C now, compared to +30C a few short hours prior in a land far to the south.  By 2am I am settle into the smallest hotel room I have ever been in (including the itsy bitsy ones in NYC!!), where I can finally check email and fall into a deep sleep.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The last leg of my journey finds me loading onto an airport shuttle at 10am, checking luggage (I pay overweight fees this time because of still-wet dive gear), and settling down for my first real meal in a week – pizza at Wolfgang Puck Express (very tasty indeed!!) with a chai latte to drink.

The flight to Moncton leaves on time and is actually 30 minutes early getting into Moncton due to strong tailwinds – you gotta love that!!!  This time my luggage is first off the conveyor, I grab a cab and I’m home before the plane was supposed to land.

I am so glad to be home – Cuba is a nice place to visit, but the lack of decent food and not-too-comfortable beds drains your energy, as does all the wonderful sun and probably too much alcohol.

I am confused over whether I would return to this spot.  The diving was good, but deep so the dives were shorter than I prefer.  They also don’t make it easy to get in more than one dive each day.  I prefer this area to Varadero – it’s not a complete party town, but you can walk to 2 discos if you choose to leave the resort.  The staff at the resorts also did things for you BEFORE you gave them a tip – something that doesn’t happen in Varadero.


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