Also, I must say that while I generally enjoy exploring new places, there is something kind of special about returning to a familiar spot. I could tell that the boys were as excited as I was to settle in, grab a bite at the buffet, and head to the beach for a swim in what we already knew to be a warm, delightful stretch of ocean on a spectacular beach. It was fun, too, to introduce Rick and Tats, who had not yet been to Cuba, and had never visited a resort, to the whole lay of the land and watch their enjoyment of this break from the regular routine back home.
This year, we elected to take up a few of the outings on offer at the resort, which we had not done last year. One afternoon, for example, we all went snorkeling off a catamaran at some nearby coral, surrounded by about a dozen other small boats of fellow snorkelers from different resorts.
An entrepreneurial type out in the water had his own catamaran set up, along with several bottles of fish food and an underwater camera with which -- for a (negotiable) fee -- he would take photos of your group underwater, and arrange to have them delivered on DVD to your hotel later that night by a "sister" of his. We went for it, wanting to capture this special moment. (Neither Rick nor Tats had snorkeled before, and for the boys, it was only the second time.)
The woman showed us the collection of images on her device, we gave her $20, and within seconds she had the photos transferred to a CD-ROM and thrust into our hot little hands.
Another afternoon, a fellow came by the beach chairs and asked if anyone might be interested in horse-back riding. On offer for a small fee was a pick up in the lobby of our hotel with a 1950s car, followed by a 45-minute ride along the beach closer to town. Tats and I took him up on it.
One of the full-day outings offered by the tour operators on-site is a so-called "Jeep Safari" in which up to four people travel by Jeep through Matanzas and around the country side, visiting a coffee plantation and various other sites. Snorkeling, lunch and a swim in the caves is included.
Tats and the boys were eager, so off they went!
Dolphins, Camels and Pelicans
Closer to home, we wandered next door to see the Dolphins. There also seemed to be two camels which were grazing in a field between our resort and the Delfinario. I wanted to pet one, but Tats advised against it! The pelicans were, as always, eager to participate in the fish-eating part of the dolphin show.
In addition to having a home base at a Varadero resort, we also visited Havana again, staying in the same, central apt I had booked for myself and the boys last year, through Air BnB.
While a seaside resort has its own merits, I feel like traveling to a place like Cuba, and not availing oneself of the rich opportunities for at least a little authentic cultural immersion, constitutes a real tourist crime! Part of the inherent value of travel is expanding ones cultural horizons, and a city like Havana is the perfect place to step outside ones comfort zone a bit and learn something new.
Simon and I played for a bit, and mused about what it would be like to live in Havana for several months. (We both agreed that while it was an interesting city, a Cuban lifestyle might be more readily enjoyed in the countryside rather than this noisy, busy and somewhat stinky metropolis.)
We soon wandered back from the museum to pick up the others and head over to our appointed lunch spot, which turned out to be a tremendously delicious choice with tasty dishes, including the drinks, and -- despite its location in tourist central -- not outrageous in price.
It was really nice to see some familiar faces so far from home, and I was happy to introduce Rick and Tats to Irena and her son (and later, her dad).
The old metal, spiral staircase was as rickety as ever, and the view from the rooftop as awesome as I remembered it -- literally, you could just stand there day or night and take in the scenes from the street below. (Which we did, the next morning. Caught the local "Tim Horton's" lineup at the lady's house across the street -- she must make some awesome coffee! But were too slow with the camera to capture the red car that pulled up out front, and the two guys that got out, walked around to the back door, and hauled out a giant pig carcass!!! In fact we were so mesmerized with the proceedings that we did not even get photographic evidence of "phase two", when a third guy came out of the building with a giant platter, and the first two guys, having presumably unloaded their raw pork into the house/shop, returned, unlocked the trunk and proceeded to unload intestines, liver and other delicacies onto the large plate!!! As Rick's guidebook said, "In Cuba, expect the unexpected.)
Capablanca Chess Club
Finally we arrived at the chess club. Rick, an accomplished player in his own right, was invited to sit down to a round of speed chess.
Unfortunately, having only played online for the past several years, the combination of having to use actual chess pieces and the pressure of five people watching and scrutinizing the game proved too much for Rick, and he was creamed in under five minutes.
Last year the boys and I had stopped to snorkel between Matanzas and Varadero, and this year, I wanted to actually see the city of Matanzas. So, rather than driving directly back to the resort, we had our Havana hosts arrange a ride for us to Matanzas, where I had prearranged a tour of the city with a local journalism student through Air BnB's new "experiences" feature. (She, in turn, arranged a ride back to the resort for us from there.)
A wide variety of colonial and other influences contribute to the city's eclectic architectural style. And, like elsewhere in Cuba, both old cars and a love for the poet Jose Marti abound.
We were grateful that she was able to do this without sacrificing the climb to the top of the city, which afforded us a view of Matanzas out to the ocean that would have been breathtaking on a less overcast day.
As always, some of the best memories were not the ones necessarily captured on film. Playing cards with the kids in the lobby each night after dinner, for example, while listening to live Cuban jazz. Or sitting down on the beach sharing mate w/ some Argentinian girls we happened across while walking past the resort two down from ours!
Or, my personal favourite, the escapades from the morning in Havana when we sent Tats and Rick off to the Hotel Nacional for a tour of the mafia suites and artefacts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the boys and I took our local pesos and hopped on the guagua (Cuban Spanish for public bus) and headed out for a little adventure of our own -- They had the camera, so we have only our memories!
After a short visit to the very old , very broken down and very small Jalisco park (a pre-revolution theme park, super fun for the age 4-7 crowd, so long as you don't mind somewhat sketchy, possibly broken, old mini roller coasters and merry-go-round style rides!!) , we made our way over to the Necropolis. The boys commented on the similarity to the one we had visited in Recoleta, in Buenos Aires, a few years earlier.
But the most fun of all came when we hopped back on the bus afterwards and made our way to Coppelia, determined (now that we had local currency) to finally eat at the REAL ice cream cathedral, with the people, rather than off to the side, at the over-priced, underwhelming tourist trough!
Having bypassed the guards, we were not disappointed when we landed at a table in one of the upstairs salons, and enjoyed a little people watching along with our dirt-cheap ensaladas de bola, before heading back by "coco cab" to the neighbourhood of our AirBnB to meet Rick and Tats for pizza at a nearby stand.
Happily for us, during this visit, we were still able to enjoy the visual and experiential time-warp afforded by the old cars and still-somewhat-limited digital infrastructure. Like last time, I enjoyed the opportunities this encouraged for strengthening personal connections with the people I love most, and for forging new ones with the people whose country we were guests in. I also relished the time to read voraciously (I started and finished Everybody's Son, as well as several longer magazine articles while away, and the kids polished off two thick books each).
On our final morning in Cuba, we by-passed the 8:00 a.m. milk run and elected instead to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and one last walk on the beach, before hopping into a local car to take us -- for the price of 9 CUCs, some batteries, a baseball cap, a few t-shirts, some children's books and some other odds and ends -- to the airport at a more reasonable 10:30 a.m. arrival for our 12:25 p.m. departure back to Toronto.