Sunday, January 5, 2014

2013 Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala


Our hotel close by the old city in Panama, was also within walking distance to the celebrations for Panama’s annual Carnaval.  These celebrations continue for five days and are held each year 40 days before Easter.  The atmosphere was very interesting with daily parades, decorated floats, elaborate costumes, bands, food stalls and people dancing the night away.

Wikipedia: This pre-Lenten celebration takes place at the same time and in the same spirit as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Four days of revelling, parties and partaking in ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ are justified due to the impending repentance 40 days prior to Holy Week according to the Catholic calendar.

Panama’s Hop on Hop off bus once again gave us a great look at the city of Panama.  Panama  offers lucrative financial incentives and benefits to ex-pats from various countries to come and live in Panama.  We met many European and Americans who have now taken up residence in Panama and enjoy living in this part of the world, with excellent flights out of Panama city direct to various US and European destinations.

A visit to Panama would not be complete without a visit to the famous Panama Canal and museums, where we were able to watch a very interesting and steady flow of traffic coming through the canal.  While we were there an Australian yacht with flag flying proudly passed through on its way to the Pacific.

Lonely Planet:  The Panama Canal is truly one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels.  The Canal stretches for 80 km from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colon on the Atlantic side, cutting through the Continental Divide.  Approximately 14,000 vessels pass through the canal each year and ships worldwide are built with the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks in mind:  305 metres long and 33.5 metres wide.

Ships pay according to their weight, with the average fee around US$30,000.  The highest amount, around $US200,000 was paid in 2001 by the 90,000 ton French cruise ship Infinity;  the lowest amount was US$0.36, paid in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, who swam through.

In 2006 Panamanian voters overwhelmingly endorsed an ambitious project to expand the Panama Canal.  One of the biggest transportation projects in the world, this US$5.25 billion mega-project will stretch over seven years and finish in conjunction with the canal’s centennial in 2014.  The new locks will be 60% wider and 40% longer and container traffic is expected to triple.

Prior to entering Panama we were required to have a ticket out of the country, so we purchased a bus ticket from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica, with a company called Safe Passage.  We took a northbound bus to Boquete in the highlands and made arrangements to pick up our International Tica Bus in the city of David a few days later, believing that this ticket could be altered or changed easily – this was not the case.  The ticket is an International ticket and must be used to exit the country.  We paid for the extra fare to Boquete and then picked up our International ticket from David to San Jose, Costa Rica.

We arrived in David, took a local bus to Boquete, known for its cool, fresh climate and mountain setting and on a recommendation booked into the lovely Hotel El Oasis for the next couple of days.  On a walk through the little township, Pat spoke with a taxi driver and decided to book his services, which turned out to be a very enjoyable three hour trip through the countryside and mountains that surround Boquete.  Flowers, coffee, vegetables and citrus fruits flourish in Boquete’s rich soil.

On our return to David from Boquete, the Tica bus agency told us we had to be at the David bus stop at 4:00am to meet our bus – of course Pat loves to be early so we were there at 3:20am!  As it turns out, we could have stayed in bed a lot longer, as the bus did not arrive until 7am!  We ended up sitting on that concrete bus-stop bench in the middle of nowhere for 3½ hours! 

Costa Rica

San Jose has a lovely mountainous backdrop and very busy city parks and malls.  Our hostel was close to the city centre, so once again we were able to walk everywhere.  After spending a couple of days in the city we hired a car (4WD was highly recommended) and headed off on our own.  Parque Naconal Volcan Poas is a beautiful volcanic area high in the mountains after following a winding, scenic road and then a brisk walk in the cool air to the crater.  Volcan Poas is 2,604 metres high and at the top is an amazing view inside an active volcano.  We arrived at the lookout but couldn’t see anything for cloud, when suddenly the clouds began to lift and we had a great view inside this volcano crater which is 1.3 km across and 300 metres deep.  We continued winding our way around the mountains and the scenery was truly beautiful. 

Eventually we headed toward the Pacific Coast at Samara and over the next number of days  travelled the bumpiest gravel and dirt roads all along the coastline, visiting the small towns along the way.  Further north, we arrived in Tamarindo and checked into a beautiful place right on the beachfront where we spent a great few days.  The beach here is flat, wide and long so we enjoyed getting out for early morning walks.  These beaches are famous for surfing and people come from everywhere to take board-riding lessons.  The locals told us that as a result of the most recent earthquake, the plates shifted and the waves have now become smaller, which is not great for their surfing reputation with many surfing schools packing up and heading to other destinations.

After leaving the Pacific Coast we headed to Liberia airport where we dropped off our hire car, being very appreciative of the recommendation of a 4WD.


We took a bus from Liberia to the border with Nicaragua, crossed the border and headed toward the ferry which would take us to Moyagalpa on the beautiful Isla de Ometepe.

The ferry, if I can call it that, was antiquated but it is still working well, ferrying people and belongings across Lake Nicaragua to the island.  Pat was particularly amused at the manually operated bilge pump.  Ometepe is an island formed by twin volcanoes rising out of the lake.  The two volcanoes are Concepcion at 1,610 metres above the lake and Maderas at 1,394 metres.  Lava flows created an isthmus between the two volcanoes, thus creating the island, which means “two hills”.  It’s a magical place and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit there.  We booked Rommel and his taxi from our Hotel Los Ranchitos in Moyogalpa and spent five hours driving to beautiful spots, including an organic coffee plantation and the most amazing Ojo de Agua, which is a volcanic fed lagoon with the most amazing cool and clear water.  The family-run hotel was very welcoming and we really enjoyed their company.

The beautiful city of Granada is considered Nicaragua tourism’s goose that laid the golden egg.  The city, originally founded in 1524, has been restored and is famous for its carved colonial portals, elegant churches and beautiful plaza, all topped off by the beautiful location right on Lake Nicaragua.  We checked into the very beautiful Hostel Oasis, which had every facility imaginable and topped off by a beautiful swimming pool right in the centre of the courtyard.  These Spanish towns look fairly unimpressive from the street view, then they open their doors and you’re able to step inside to beautiful buildings and impressive courtyards.

All through these Central American countries, schools abound both in Spanish language lessons and Latin American dancing for the many eager travellers.  People come from all over the world to visit for a few weeks, do immersion courses in Spanish and then learn to dance at night.  Leon was our last stop before crossing over yet some more borders and was the original capital of Nicaragua.


Honduras is the poorest country in Central America and due to the high incidence of violent crime, many people prefer to pass right through, which is exactly what we did.
El Salvador

This has been a very big and tiring day travelling on local buses, taxis, mini-buses, tuk-tuks walking and border crossings, as we’ve actually travelled through three countries, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.

We made the decision to travel on through to San Miguel rather than stay in the capital city of Sans Salvador.  It was a great decision as right across the street from our bus station in San Miguel was the King’s Palace Hotel, a welcome respite at the end of a big day.  We have become accustomed to seeing armed guards and police on the streets of Central America, which has become a necessity due to the high rates of crime.  When we walk in the streets, we’re mindful of our belongings and were advised to remove any bright gold jewellery such as chains and watches.

Once again we were keen to visit the Pacific Coast, although the sands here are now greyish black.  El Tunco is a very popular beachside town and is a favourite destination for surfers.  The waves along this coastline are ideal for all types of board riders and especially for those who enjoy a long wave.  Surf-board riding schools abound as do young surfers eager to give the sport a go.  We stayed at Roca Sunzal Resort right on the beach and enjoyed sitting in the restaurant on the beach at sunset, which is particularly beautiful at El Tunco.

We took a minibus from El Tunco and followed the Pacific coast north and crossed into Guatemala, the last new country on this trip.


Our first stop was the beautiful city of Antigua, where we came upon a bit of a glitch in our accommodation booking.  We arrived by minibus from El Salvador at 8pm as I had noted to the Dionisio Hotel in our booking, but they refused us entry and told us check in time ended at 1pm.  I have never heard anything so ludicrous before, as most Hotels have 1pm as the actual check in time – it also seems that they may have charged our credit card when we were a “no show” at 1pm.  I will certainly be following this issue up with the booking agents and also our credit card company, perhaps even the local tourism board.  We were not getting anywhere with this rude man at the front gate, so our minibus driver took us back to Zoola Hostel where three Israeli girls who were on our bus, had booked into.

The owner of Zoola was so understanding and helpful.  Unfortunately the private rooms were booked out, so for the first time in my life I checked into a dorm room, but fortunately there was only one other person there, who was very happy to have some company.  The hostel, which is  middle eastern in design, is a great place and we were able to get dinner there, as well as have a delicious breakfast included.  The management couple at Zoola Hostel are from Israel and have set up an amazing business, I wish them both well.

Businesses such as the Dionisio Hotel need to be aware of today’s computer savvy travellers who are able to, and do put information out there in relation to good or bad experiences, which in turn will give an indication to others who may wish to visit.  We often use Trip Advisor website and I will now be adding a review on the Dionisio Hotel and also a recommendation to Zoola Hostel.   We did book into another hotel the following morning and were warmly welcomed by the owner, Victor, who was more than happy to show us his hotel, tell us about his beautiful city of Antigua and explain some of the famous attractions.  In fairness, I have to say we have had very few bad experiences in all our travels.

Antigua is considered to be Guatemala’s showpiece and was a former capital before Guatemala City.  It is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is enjoyed by both international travellers and Guatemalans.  Lonely Planet:  Perhaps the real miracle of Antigua is its resilience.  Despite the destructive forces that have conspired against it – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods, followed by virtual abandonment and centuries of neglect – the town has re-emerged with a vengeance, buoyed by the pride of its inhabitants.

Major sites here include the Parque Central and numerous Churches and Monasteries – I think we went into 5 Churches all within a small area.  From the rooftop of our hotel, we could look across at all the buildings and see the beautiful mountains behind.  The markets are vibrant with people and colour – the traditionally dressed Mayans are in the town selling all their beautiful bright coloured cloth, trinkets of every kind, beautiful leather goods and of course the mandatory t-shirts.  The Mayan are very short in stature and I’m amazed at how the women carry their babies on their back, wrapped up in cloth.  When the baby wakes, it’s just a matter of slipping the cloth, complete with baby under the arm and they’re ready to be breastfed.

We took a minibus from Antigua and headed up the mountains to the beautiful Lago de Atitlan and the little village of Panajachel, which is right on the lake.  The little village has numerous hotels, restaurants and travel agents, which do obviously keep many people employed.  The little hotel we stayed in, is also run by a Mayan family.  The little Mayan ladies have their brightly coloured goods wrapped in large cloths, which they wrap up, tie and then place on their heads for easy carrying.

The following morning we went to the jetty and took a little ferry boat to the village of San Marcos where we have checked into a beautiful little room overlooking the lake.  The view is picture postcard perfect, with the lakeside only 20 metres from our door.  This afternoon I have been bringing my blog up to date and Pat has been enjoying the sun (for a change).  Pat has gone up for a sauna so when he returns we’ll walk up to the village for dinner.

There was a major blackout that evening, but we did find a little restaurant in the village alive with candlelight and the delightful couple were cooking all meals on gas – it turned out to be a great evening and the food was delicious.  San Marcos has become a centre for many alternative style people who believe that it has a particular spiritual energy.  It has therefore become an excellent place to learn or practice meditation, holistic therapies, massage, Reiki and other spiritually oriented activities.

The next day we took a ferry to the village of San Pedro and checked into a hotel room high on the hill with magnificent views across the lake from our balcony.  We walked up 77 steps (I counted them every time) from the street to reach our room “with a view”, which we enjoyed for the next couple of days.  Guatemala is renowned worldwide for its fabulous coffee and we were lucky enough to meet a couple from Vancouver who are in the coffee roasting business (Bean around the World) and they helped increase our knowledge of the humble coffee bean.  We took a morning ferry to the large village of Santiago the following day and visited the Church at the top of the village where Father Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma, beloved by the local people, was murdered by death squads in 1981.

We took a minibus from San Pedro, said goodbye to beautiful Lake Atitlan and headed to Guatemala City where we’re spending our last days in Central America.  Time now to rearrange our gear, repack our bags and prepare for our flight home after a stopover in Los Angeles.

2012 and 2013 Florida and the Caribbean

Orlando, Florida

As we neared the baggage carousel at Orlando International Airport, PJ and Flynn surprised us – great excitement - let the holiday begin!  We headed to the hire car area and picked up the cars we had pre-booked.  Sonya, Liam and Ayla were ready when we arrived at the hotel, so we all headed out to a restaurant for dinner and a great night out.

Over the next few days we visited Disney World, saw Fantasyland’s Castle lights come on in the evening and watched Disney light the skies with magnificent fireworks.  We also spent a day at the Epcot Centre, enjoying all the various exhibits and rides.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida – Ruby Princess in the Eastern Caribbean

We headed out of Orlando after breakfast and south on the freeway to Fort Lauderdale, where we boarded our ship, The Ruby Princess, in readiness for our Christmas Cruise.  Our check in was hassle free and in no time we were shown to our cabins.  We were all pretty excited about our forthcoming holiday and spending the next seven days cruising the Eastern Caribbean.  Our two cabins were next door to each other, and as each cabin sleeps four people, Flynn had seniority and moved in with his Granny and Pa for the duration of the cruise.

The holiday on board the ship offered a great opportunity to spend quality time together, without the daily chores of cooking, washing, cleaning and of course driving.  The cruise was great and we were not disappointed.  Santa even arrived by helicopter on Christmas morning and came down in the lift with gifts for all the children.

Every evening our table for seven was set in the fine dining restaurant.  The waiters were very attentive and enjoyed a special camaraderie with the children, who enjoyed the total experience.  A Kids’ Club is available onboard and it became a place the kids loved to visit, thus giving their Mum and Dad time to chill out, relax in each other’s company and enjoy the sunshine before heading back to the ice and snow of Williams Lake, BC Canada.

Our ports of call while on the cruise were Princess Cay, Eleuthera Island (The Bahamas), St Maarten (France & Netherlands), Charlotte Amalie at St Thomas, (US Virgin Islands) and Grand Turk and Caicos Islands (UK).

What a great holiday we all had, but sadly it had to come to an end upon our arrival back in Ft Lauderdale with PJ, Sonya and the children having to fly back to Canada soon after we docked.


Pat and I had organised to pick up a hire car to drive to Miami, but a surprise text message from a previous work mate of Pat’s delayed our picking up the car by a few hours.

Pat used to work with Mark at German Creek before he headed over to the States to live many years ago.  The German Creek connections stay strong, so Mark and Pat kept in touch.  He and his partner picked us up from the ship, took us back to their place for a visit and then gave us a scenic tour of Fort Lauderdale before dropping us at the airport to pick up our car.  We headed towards Miami on the freeway and to avoid the congestion in the city we continued on south to the Florida Keys, a National Marine Sanctuary.

The keys is a series of small keys and sounds linked by a good highway and 42 bridges, thus enabling travel from the top at Key Largo right through to the southernmost point of Key West.  We travelled the full distance of the Keys stopping off for a night at Islamorada.  We drove up to the most northerly point of the keys at Ocean Reef Club, a favourite fishing destination for many people including US Presidents.

Everglades National Park is a massive expanse of marsh and swampy grassland on the western and southern side of Florida, encompassing many square miles. We visited the National Park and sensitive wetland areas, getting up very close to alligators and wildlife.  A problem they are trying to deal with at the moment is the proliferation of Burmese pythons which were originally imported from Asia and sold as house pets to American families.  The current python population is approximately 100,000.  The trouble is, these small pythons grew to be huge and people realised they needed to get rid of their house pets – so unfortunately for the Everglades, people released them into this marshland area.  This crazy move has brought about a huge environmental and ecological nightmare in the Everglades.  We travelled into the Everglades parklands and booked a trip on an air boat.  The Everglades National Park administration is not keen on these air boat operators as they believe they are actually doing more harm than good to this fragile environment.

Grand Cayman

We boarded our flight from Miami to Grand Cayman Island where we spent a couple of days touring the island and enjoying the beach and sunshine.  We met up with Gemma, a friend of Sonya’s who has been living in the Grand Caymans for the past few years.  Gemma and her husband who now have a son thoroughly enjoy living in Grand Cayman and for now are happy to stay.  We are unable to fly from the US into Cuba, so our stopover has been our stepping stone into Cuba.

A couple of notes about our forward travel bookings.  When booking a hire car, we first look at and for booking accommodation we initially use and/or


Havana - Casa Abel y Aide

Our Cayman Airways flight from Grand Cayman arrived in Havana where we were met by a taxi driver; changed some US money into Cuban CUC and were then taken to Casa Abel y Aidee (homestay), our home for the next three days.  We were warmly greeted by their son Rigo and his Mother, Aidee and welcomed into their Casa with a couple of cold beers.  This Casa Particular is an old Colonial building with huge ceilings and large doors and shutters.

Over the three days we had an ensuited, air conditioned room and had all breakfasts and most dinners provided.   To give an idea for Cuba, a CUC is roughly equivalent to AUD$1, accommodation is usually around 20 to 25 CUC, breakfast 3 to 4 CUC each, dinner 7 to 10 CUC each, a beer is 1 to 1.50 CUC and a bottle of water is 1 CUC.

What follows is an example of what we are served for breakfast in our Casa:  Freshly juiced fruits,  a platter of fruit, pot of coffee, jug of milk, omelette, toast and home made jam.  Breakfast has been substantial enough that we aren’t hungry at lunchtime and then we follow on in the evening with yet another great meal.

Havana in a snapshot: 1950 to 1960 era American cars – convertibles are considered top of the range and more expensive as taxis, grubby streets, roaming dogs and droppings, friendly and warm people, safe to walk at night, fishnet and patterned stockings, cigars, mojitos, music, singing and dancing.  They say that if a Cuban doesn’t dance he sings and if he doesn’t sing he dances!

Fidel Castro is very ill, but no one knows where he or his brother live, although we believe Fidel is permanently living in hospital.  His brother Raul is running the country but many people have the opinion he is not a good leader and hope that in time a new Government will run Cuba.  If anyone gives a political comment it must be said in private as opinions are not spoken freely.  Wages are extremely low but education is very high and all Cubans have the opportunity to go to University, and I believe University is free for Cubans.  At the time of the Revolution 3,000 of Cuba’s 6,000 Doctors fled the country, so now it has gone the other way and Cuba is rated with having some of the best medical available in the world.  The downside to all this is that a Doctor paid by the Government will only earn $20 to $25 per month – work that one out.

The Government has also passed a ruling to allow people to open the front of their homes as a small business, for example a corner store, clothing shop, shoe shop – these little businesses are everywhere.  The population work hard to make some money wherever they are able to.  The ones who seem to be making some decent money are the entrepreneurs who provide services and transport for the tourists.  There are two currencies operating in Cuba – the CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) for the foreigners and the CUP (Cuban Pesos) for the locals; the CUP is approximately 1/25th of a CUC.  There is also two bus services running, the Viazul strictly for the tourists and the Astro buses for the nationals.

We spent one day using the hop on hop off bus, which was great in Havana, taking us around all the local sights.  Another day was spent visiting the old City and also the Museum of the Revolution.  The Museum is very interesting, but hard to follow as it isn’t in a sequential format, but lots of photographs make it easier to follow.  Prior to the Revolution led by Fidel Castro the Government was being run by a dictator, Batista.   He was overthrown, but unfortunately took US$40,000,000 of Government funds with him to the Dominican Republic when he fled Cuba on January 1st 1959.

While walking in the city we were approached by many touts who would ask where we are from, want to talk about their family in Australia and would then want to take us to expensive restaurants and places where they would receive a commission – we are now quite streetwise so are pretty good at dismissing them.  We were advised to avoid any eye contact and give a firm no thank you.

Abel and Aidee made our stay in Havana amazing, looking out for us like we were part of the family.  Abel advised us on recommended destinations in Cuba and phoned ahead to his Amigos to say we would be coming.  He also made the arrangement with each Casa owner to meet us at our bus stop when we would arrive at our next destination.

On our last evening in Havana, Abel and Aidee summoned us and another couple from England into the living room where they brought out nibbilies, Mojitos and Havana rum to toast us on our travels in Cuba.  Abel enjoyed the rum so much, he went out and brought back another bottle (4 CUC)!  On this last night in Havana we went to a highly recommended restaurant for dinner with our bill totaling 26 CUC, which included beer and wine.

Bus tickets must be bought the day before travel in Cuba, so we pre-booked our fares for Venales which is a UNESCO world heritage site.  The following morning we said goodbye to Aidee and Abel, although he insisted on taking us to the Hotel where we would board our bus.  I had numerous kisses and cuddles from Abel and Aidee and they asked us to return to Havana one day.

Vinales - Casa Estevan y Margarita

As promised, we were met at the bus in Vinales by Margarita’s mother, who took us to her Casa.  The Casa is named after her husband Estevan and daughter Margarita.  Margarita’s sister Jacqueline speaks understandable English which makes it easier for us (or so I thought).  It appears that Jacqueline runs the Casa and the rest of the family live at the Grandmother’s house.  Jacqueline has a 6 year old son but has no husband – we have learnt that Cuba has an extremely high rate of divorce, so there are many single mothers with children.

Jacqueline recommended a trip for us to visit the valley and the farmers’ plantations.  She told us she has a young friend who would take us on a horse and buggy for four hours.  That sounded pretty good to us, so Alberto came to the Casa to pick us up.  Our 1957 Chevrolet taxi arrived at the door and took us to a dirt road near the mountains where I could see 3 horses all saddled up and waiting for us.  Where is the buggy, I thought?  I guess we did misunderstand Jacqueline’s English!  We were now going horse riding for 4 hours!  Oh well, let’s go!

We had an enjoyable day in the valley with our guide, Alberto.  We visited the plantations of tobacco, maize, malanga, sugar cane, coffee, beans, bananas and rice.  We visited a young farmer and his wife, who explained the tobacco crops to us and showed us how they prepare, roll and make the Havana cigars.  The bunch of tobacco leaves which were tied together to dry had a strong smell, but after he tore the centre stem from the leaves (thus removing 70% of the nicotine) and rolled the leaves into a cigar, the smell changed and became quite aromatic.  On our excursion we had to wade through a submerged road and I became a bit concerned when Pat’s horse had a slip – of course my horse had a few slips as well, but I held on and all was okay.

We walked into the town in the evening to have a cool drink and enjoyed the music and singing in the street.  By morning my rear end felt the worse for wear, so there’ll be no more horse riding for me for a while.

Cienfuegos - Casa Ana Maria

We set off by bus for Cienfuegos, which covered almost half way across the country.  Once again we were met by a local, our bags were tied onto the back of a bicycle built for 3 and we were cycled to our Casa where Ana Maria was waiting at the front door with open arms.  After a cool welcome drink on her patio in the back yard, we figured we had better seriously try to get some more money.  We had some issues using our cards in Havana, so we set off to try again.  We walked down the paved central street and tried each bank but once again with no luck. 

Our Cash Passport which is MasterCard is not accepted in Cuba because it is affiliated with a US bank; our Bank of Queensland Visa debit is not accepted in Cuba because it is also affiliated with a US bank; we couldn’t get a cash advance on our Bank of Queensland credit card as it is also affiliated with a US bank and the banks won’t change Australian dollars either.  Finally we changed some of our US currency into CUC for which they take a steep 10% commission.  Thankfully there doesn’t seem to be any problems with making payments by Credit Cards, which we have done when we can – eg bus tickets and plane tickets.  Our Canadian cash was very handy and we had no trouble converting it to Cuban money.

Ana Maria served up a wonderful meal in the evening and included a bottle of wine.  The meals in the Casa are always more than is required and so far all have been delicious.  Hotels in Cuba don’t get a very good rap, so we’ve followed recommendations and stayed in Casas and have had most meals there as well.  Ana Maria’s Casa is the busiest home we have been in, visitors drop in continuously and we were introduced to everyone.

The next leg was a relatively short hop of a couple of hours down to an interesting little city called Trinidad.  Trinidad is very touristy so we were told to beware of the touts on the street and once again, Alex was there to meet us at the bus station.  This is a quaint little town with many of the streets made of cobblestones.

Trinidad - Casa Bombino

Our home for the next couple of days was on the upper floor of the Casa and included a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, with the added luxury of a rooftop deck for relaxing and watching the sunsets.  Felix Bombino was widowed only three weeks earlier, but together with his son Alex they work hard and really look after their guests.  Alex speaks exceptional English which he learnt to speak, by listening to the guests at their Casa since he was 11 years of age.  He is now 26 and is about to become a Dad for the second time.

We went back to the bus station to book our fares to Santiago de Cuba, only to find out that the buses were booked for the next three days.  Alex told us not to worry as he will work something out for us, as we have flights booked to Jamaica from Santiago de Cuba.  Once again we decided to try the banks and once again, no luck.  This is the tightest situation we’ve ever had in relation to exchanging money, so we are planning out a strict budget on a daily basis.

A quaint, fully air conditioned (no windows), two carriage train takes about 50 foreign visitors for a day trip into the valley outside Trinidad to see the sugar cane fields and visit several small villages in the Valle de los Ingenios.  We stopped for lunch and once again were entertained by very enjoyable local musicians and singers.  Whenever we have listened to these groups, they walk around with a little basket for monetary donations, as a gesture of our appreciation and all produce their latest CD, which is of course, available for purchase.

On the return journey into Trinidad, Pat sat in the Club Car and was then invited into the driver’s cabin of the train with the engineers, so I went up to take some photos of Pat driving the train.  The next minute the train came to a halt, and I was whisked into the driver’s cabin also and given a very comfy seat opposite Pat.  The two engineers were very happy to have a couple of Aussies visit, and told us that Pat will be driving the train all the way back to Trinidad.  Pat was in his element, driving the train and pulling the cord for the train whistle whenever we came across cattle on the track or were nearing crossings and pedestrians. 

When we arrived home, Alex had our travel sorted out which meant we could leave Trinidad one day earlier than the bus schedule would allow.  He organised a taxi (1957 Ford convertible) which would take us on a trip for 2 hours to the town of Sancti Spiritus and he then had reserved the last two tickets for us on the 9:15pm bus, which would travel overnight to Santiago de Cuba.  Thanks to Alex for helping us out.  Our evening meal was local Cuban reef fish called Pargo, which is caught off the coast of Trinidad.

Felix delivered our breakfast on our last morning at Casa Bombino and told us that Alex had taken his wife to the hospital earlier to have the baby, so there was a lot of excitement in the house this morning.  We packed up our bags and waited for the taxi driver to pick us up.  We arrived in Sancti Spiritus with about 10 hours to fill in before our bus departure.  We need not have wondered how we could fill our time in this little City, as we had no problems.  We walked into the lovely paved City Centre where we found a very nice little air conditioned café and had lunch;  next I crossed the street and organised to have a haircut;  then we found the telecommunications centre and bought some internet time, so were able to check our mail, particularly to see how my sister Kitty is doing.  Earlier in the day we passed by a nice little restaurant on our way into the City Centre, so thought we’d head there for dinner on our way back to the bus station.  What an enjoyable meal we had accompanied by a lovely red wine and all for the amazing cost of 6.90 CUC.

While waiting for our bus at the station we sat in the cool evening air and it didn’t take long before we were chatting with some friendly nationals.  A young Puerto Rican was telling me he and his wife are studying medicine in Havana and told us how excellent the Medical Training is here in Cuba.  He said his father has paid US$100,000 for his son to study Medicine in Cuba.  He said that when he finishes his training in 2 years time he hopes to work in Germany where he can then earn excellent money.  He said it is true that the Cuban Doctors earn very low wages and that they are free to travel to other countries to work but unfortunately they do not have the money to travel.  We have heard that the rule restricting travel for Cubans will be lifted as of 14th January 2013, thus allowing Cubans if they are financially able, to travel outside the country.

Santiago de Cuba – Casa de Rosa, Maria Marti Vazquez

We were the only passengers boarding in Sancti Spiritus and were directed down the back to the two remaining seats in the bus.  The bus was very comfortable and air conditioned, so I had the pleasure of sleeping for most of the ten hour journey to Santiago de Cuba.  Pat reckons he didn’t sleep as well as I did, but nevertheless he did have some hours sleep.  When we arrived, once again, there was a man holding the sign with our names on it and we were taken by taxi to our lovely Casa and welcomed by Rosa.

There are several generations living here, the Mother who is invalid is 93 then her two daughters run the Casa and look after the Mother, with granddaughters also calling in and working with the family.  Their sense of family is foremost and it’s very interesting with several generations living and working together under the one roof.  Their warmth and kindness to us has been unreal and this has been our experience right across the country, not just in one place.

Fancy tights
Wedding Car - Cuban style 
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We took off for a walk into the City Square, had some breakfast and then walked on down to the waterfront.  Our walk home was up some very steep hills, which we had no problem climbing – one thing for sure, this travelling makes us do lots of walking which is so good for fitness.

Our taxi arrived the following morning right on time to take us to the airport for our flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica.  Our plane was a twin engine 12 seater Beechcraft.  The flight was excellent and we had great views as we left Cuba headed for Jamaica.


At Montego Bay Airport we organised our hire car for our stay in Jamaica and then drove into town and checked into a grand home called Knightwick House, our accommodation for the next two days in Montego Bay. 

It was safe enough to walk around the area where our accommodation was located but we were advised not to go further on foot as Jamaica has a high crime rate and the locals smoke and take too much funny stuff.

We spent the next five days driving around Jamaica and checking out the towns and areas.  Port Antonio is a beautiful area and from here we went out to visit The Blue Lagoon, where Brooke Shield’s movie of the same name was filmed.  Yes it was beautiful to see, but the locals guard it and want to charge to take you out on a rickety bamboo raft so we can supposedly get up close and personal.  We were happy to take come photos and then head back to Port Antonio.  Fortunately it started to rain so we were able to leave for a very good reason.

I can’t say I have been particularly comfortable being in Jamaica.  We have enjoyed the places we have visited but seem to be forever looking out over your shoulder.

We stayed at a lovely home called The Holiday House in Port Antonio and enjoyed chatting with the other guests there who were all from Germany and England.  Sarah and Ulli are currently teaching English in Costa Rica and we offered them a lift with us to Kingston the following day, which they happily accepted.  The Port Antonio Marina is close to our accommodation so it was good to be able to walk to the Marina and check out our emails and touch base with home.

Our trip around the coast into the Capital of Kingston was enjoyable but we missed the first right hand turn we were meant to take on the outskirts of the city.  We then turned right on the next available green light, only to hear “that sound” behind us and the coppers wanting to pull us over.  The driver and his off-sider climbed out of the Police vehicle and approached our car – the main copper looked like Mike Tyson - he carried a revolver and was wearing a bullet proof vest (he looked mean as hell!!!) – his offsider was also wearing a bullet proof vest and he carried a machine gun, with his finger on the trigger!!  You wouldn’t want to break the law here or cross the coppers!!  When we started chatting and apologised profusely for turning right on a GREEN light the copper started to relax a bit, especially when he knew we were from Australia.  He explained that there is a “filter” beside the light and we have to wait for the filter to show a green arrow.  We explained there was no red arrow and no traffic ahead of us, so as in Australia we felt it was safe to proceed.  The two coppers chatted for a while - asked us the Hotel and address of where we were going – then said to follow them – they said they will give us a Police escort to our Hotel!!  What more could we ever ask for???  They escorted us across the city to our Hotel and shook hands and asked if we have enjoyed Jamaica.  We said “YES” and can’t wait to come back!!  Pat even told them the next time the West Indies are playing cricket against Australia he will even barrack for the West Indies!!  We all shook hands and said goodbye and many thanks.  Phew …..

We decided to have dinner in the safe confines of our hotel and enjoy a hassle free evening.  The following morning we set off early for the Kingston airport where we boarded our flight for Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.  We were welcomed onto our aircraft by the same pilot who flew us into Montego Bay from Cuba.  I told him it’s as though we have our own private piloted plane – he agreed and had a good laugh.


Port-au-Prince is the capital of Haiti.  There’s nothing much I want to say about Haiti except that I found it hard to distinguish the devastation from the restoration.  Pat reckons the best part of Haiti was the bus out.  This is a disastrous country from my perception.  Relief money has come in from all over the world following the massive earthquake, but there are people still living in tents.  Garbage is all over the footpaths, in the canals and drains.  The country appears to be an environmental nightmare.  I am sure there are some nice little beach areas to visit outside the city, but after two days in the city we’re keen to move onto the Dominican Republic.  We booked a taxi driver to take us where we needed to go over the two days we spent in Haiti and his fares were also over the top.

The bus trip was quite comfortable, but the border crossing was onerous and glad to be able to put it behind us.  We then sat back and relaxed as we enjoyed this new country of the Dominican Republic.

Dominican Republic

As we drove along in our bus we could see a change for the better in the countryside, towns and people of the Dominican Republic as we headed towards the Capital city of Santo Domingo.

We had pre-booked our accommodation at El Beaterio in the Zona Colonial part of the city.  Originally a Convent built in the 16th century, the building has been beautifully restored and today functions as a Boutique Hotel.  The building has a heavy stone façade and vaulted ceilings in the welcome areas which all head into a lush and sunny interior courtyard.  The guest rooms have wood-beam ceilings and stone flooring which is fantastic.  We enjoyed our stay in this quaint and historical hotel.

It was enjoyable to walk around a Colonial City and feel safe in the environment, a lovely respite after Jamaica and Haiti.  We visited the very old Cathedral Santa Maria de Merla (this Cathedral actually has five names – another name is Catedral Primada de America) and arrived in time for the midday Mass.  The whole Mass was spoken and sung in Spanish, with the choir singing beautifully in this fully operational Cathedral.  A soprano soloist sang Ave Maria and the sound of her voice was absolutely amazing in this beautiful 16th century high ceiling Cathedral.

(Lonely Planet)  Cathedral Primada de America is the oldest cathedral in operation in the Americas.  Diego Columbus set the first stone for this building in 1514, but construction didn’t begin in earnest until the arrival of the first bishop in 1521.  Numerous architects worked on the cathedral until 1540, which is why its vault is Gothic, its arches are Romanesque and its ornamentation is baroque.
We decided to hire a car for five days and check out some more of the Dominican Republic.  We took the road north out of the city of Santo Domingo and headed to Las Terrenes on the north of the island.  A beautiful area with lovely palm fringed beaches and generally speaking an easygoing population.  Samana on the southern part of the peninsula is also very enjoyable.  The day we visited Samana, a Cruise ship was in the harbour so the local vendors were out in full force selling their wares.

We travelled across the north of the Dominican Republic to Puerta Plata another area popular with tourists, mostly from Europe, Canada and the US.  This is where we are experiencing the land of the “All Inclusive”.  A resort, where your accommodation cost covers everything from activities, facilities, entertainment, food, snacks and all drinks including spirits, beer and wines.  It’s a bit like being on a ship with the exception that we’re always in Port.

Pat has gone onto the beach to enjoy some sunshine so I decided to take some time out on a nice cool verandah with a view of the beautiful sea and type up my travel blog, which has been mostly ignored on this trip.

We travelled inland from Puerta Plata and headed into the mountains to a popular little town called Jarabacoa where we stayed the night in a hotel right alongside a rushing mountain river.  We set out next morning for Santo Domingo, returned our hire car and then headed to the ferry terminal.  We checked into our very comfortable cabin on the overnight ferry from Santo Domingo to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The trip was excellent as was dinner and breakfast onboard.

Puerto Rico

We took a taxi from the Ferry terminal to our Hotel Plaza de Armas, located right in the centre of Old San Juan where we enjoyed walking along the cobblestone streets, visiting the forts and many other historical buildings, including Cathedral de San Juan and the Convent across the street now called Gran Hotel El Convento which has been converted to a high end hotel.  After a couple of days in the Old City, we moved onto Candado Beach in San Juan and booked into a little guesthouse right on the beach.

Our seaview room opened onto a large patio and for the next three days we were able to enjoy the area and particularly the sea and the sound of the waves crashing on the shore.  This was my next  opportunity to catch up on my blog.  The lady who manages Aleli Guesthouse has done so for the past twenty-five years, so she was a wealth of knowledge about the area and advised us on where to shop as we had a kitchenette and a little fridge in our room.

It can be quite costly travelling between islands in the Caribbean, coupled with accommodation and meal costs, so we decided to book onto another cruise departing from and returning to San Juan.  This time we booked onto a Celebrity Cruise returning to San Juan in seven days, which will fit in well with our flight to Panama City in Central America.

Celebrity Summit 7 day Southern Caribbean Cruise visiting Christiansted on St Croix (US Virgin Islands), Basseterre on St Kitts, Roseau on Dominica, St George’s on Grenada, Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas and returning to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

We had a straightforward check in onto the Celebrity Summit and were shown straight to our cabin, where we unpacked our bags and settled in to enjoy the next seven days.

We flew out of San Juan with Copa Airlines for our next destination, Panama City.