July 21, 2013 by vivalafiona
Many tourists had been asking about the National Park known as El Nicho and whether I recommended the 2 hour drive to this waterfall. Having never visited it was a little difficult to offer advice other than provide feedback from other tourists. It was on my list of things to do so when Erika had a week break from school we hired a car and headed off on an new adventure. First stop was the Dolphinarium near Cienfuegos which was actually quite impressive. Rather than being a swimming pool complex the dolphins were living in a salt water bay, cut off from the ocean by a sand bank and mangrove trees. The ocean waves could still enter the pool and hence introduce fresh sea water. The dolphins had a series of enclosures available depending on the tides and one of these had a small covered amphitheatre built on one side for visitors to sit and watch these local dolphins play and perform. The performance which happens twice a day and was mainly attended by Cubans is not dissimilar to the one at Taronga Zoo. It is designed to educate people to take care of the environment so that these magnificent creatures are not endangered, injured or killed. In other words, don’t throw rubbish away, put it in a bin stupid, or else it will end up in a river and flow out to sea and hurt the wildlife.
Unlike Taronga however some visitors were able to interact with the dolphins, ie swim with them, for a price, or if you were lucky you could be selected to participate in the show. There is a resort nearby and many visitors arrive in their swimming gear, straight from the swimming pool or beach and hence are suitably attired to enter the water if selected. The usual hideous anti music (raeggaeton) was played during the performance but this didn’t detract from the sheer joy of seeing these beautiful creatures whizzing around the pool, leaping and twisting and following instructions from their trainers who regularly entered the water with them. Ossiel’s 86 year old Grandfather was almost yelling with glee at their antics, never having seen anything like this before. Having been a farmer all his life and a father of nine children he never had much time for leisure activities. I believe he told all and sundry for weeks after how much he enjoyed his first dolphin sighting.
The following day we went in convoy with some of Ossiels cousins to El Nicho, a National Park full of cascades and natural swimming pools in the Escambray Mts behind Cienfuegos. I had been told that the road up to the park was treacherous and required a 4WD but I have learnt not to take too much notice of Canadian and European tourists and their judgement of the roads here. After all people drove all over Australia and many other parts of the world in the days before 4WD, and still can and do. We found ourselves travelling on a sealed, albeit at times quite steep, road through some truly beautiful countryside, with spectacular mountain views around each bend. We left behind hundreds of orange groves lined with mango trees, their almost ripened fruit hanging in the breeze and drove through coffee and vegetable farms and into forest full of palms, bamboo, pines, eucalyptus and orchids as we climbed higher.
The entrance to the park is at the bottom of steep hill and offers a 2 km walking track through dense forest. A large mountain river, or series of rivers and streams feeds into the valley creating probably the widest waterfall in Cuba which then spills over into numerous transparent pools with names like the Lake of Lovers and the Crystal Pond. These feature overhanging rocks with caves you can swim into and under and offer a very fresh swimming experience at this time of year. Some are up to 5 metres deep which gives you an indication of how much water passes through here. Deeper into the valley the pools increase in size and the water trickles over steep grassy embankments that I imagine transform into natural water slides in the summer. A horse was grazing here oblivious to the teenager boys (same the world over) destroying the tranquillity with their squeals and jeers as each tried to out do the other in bombing or belly flopping into the pools nearby. A local bus had arrived full of teenagers not long after we did. Mental note to visit on a school day next time.
We decided to try out a coastal retreat called Guajimico which I had heard was particularly good for scuba diving and snorkling. It is halfway between Trinidad and Cienfuegos and so popular with touring cyclists too. There were plenty of Cuban families here enjoying the pool and the smorgasbord meals whilst tourist groups arrived on buses and were taken out on day trips to scuba dive or snorkel on the reef nearby. The turn off from the highway is indicated by the presence of a Big Indian holding a spear. Cuban’s share Australians obsession with Big things (landmarks) although I am yet to see a Big Banana. I still giggle when I see a ‘Big things’ recalling the effect the sight of the big guitar outside of Tamworth had on my friend Leeann from Vermont and I as we drove past it. I had to pull over because we were both crying with laughter, having already witnessed the Big banana, the Big pavlova, and the Big prawn (there is one of these on the road between Trinidad and Cienfuegos too). Truly ridiculous.
The resort is set in a protected inlet and nearby to a series of dry caves, full of stalagmites and stalagtites, that were most impressive. Lit solely from natural light that entered from cracks and holes in the ceiling above, the caves were home to many bats, crabs and at least one rather large beautifully patterned snake. The fact that I know all Cuban snakes are harmless did not stop me from getting the cold shivers at the sight of it. Visibility was not that great until your eyes adjusted and we could easily have stepped on it which was not a pleasant thought. I am very pleased to report that my new step daughter has proven to possess a spirit of adventure to match that of my Australian nieces and nephews, although she wasn’t so fond of the bats.
Children in Trinidad don’t seem to be accustomed to much exercise and lead fairly sedentary lives often in front of the TV. Baseball is the national sport but you don’t need to be fit to play this. The boys play soccer/football at school and in the streets (on cobbled stones and in bare feet) but I am yet to see a girl joining them. Erika tells me she plays volley ball at school sometimes but I haven’t seen much evidence of this. The senior high school students don’t seem to have playing fields at all other than the occasional basketball court. Perhaps saddest of all is that Trinidad doesn’t have a public swimming pool, and despite the beach being so close most children, most Cubans in fact, don’t know how to swim. Ossiel taught himself with friends playing in a one of the local rivers.
Gaujimico had a large salt water swimming pool complete with a Japanese bridge dissecting the shallow end from the deep. The pool attendant was pretty heavy handed with the salt so it was necessary for me at least to wear goggles. Osiel and I tried to teach Erika to swim but she was much more interested in playing with all the other children some of whom had those foam worms. Getting instructions from me in Spanglish probably didn’t help. So I got to relax poolside and finally read my way through a few issues of the New Yorker a very kind Canadian couple left for me.
The final days of Erika’s holiday were spent at the local beach with hundreds of locals and fishing with friends. Its spring here now, the fruit trees are getting their leaves back and the water has warmed up so it resembles a tepid bath. The Cuban beach experience always includes a bottle of rum and music and now due to the increased number of bathers some industrious Cubans have set up stalls selling caldosa (pork and vegetable stew) in a plastic cup, pan con minuta (fish fillet hamburger), galletas de sal (homemade salt crackers) and of course ice cream. I didn’t see the beer truck but it might be too early in the season yet. Whilst everyone else was wading, eating and drinking I was trying to teach Erika how to body surf in the tiny waves created by the huge sand bar that Hurricane Sandy left behind for us.
Now enjoying a wonderful book specifically aimed at elephant lovers but I defy anyone not to like it. Written by Lawrence Anthony: The Elephant Whisperer is about a wildlife park owner in South Africa who rescues a herd of wild elephants on death row due to their intolerance of human beings. He also wrote a book about rescuing animals from the Bagdhad zoo when the American’s invaded, which I will be searching for when I am back home later this month.
We moved into our new home a week ago, on the outskirts of town, amongst an orchard of mango’s avocados, guava, lime, banana and custard apple trees. The cat, Tiger, which we have adopted is currently climbing one of the mango trees as I type. We wake each morning to a fresh supply of fruit that has dropped overnight. The variety outside our door is called changletta which means thong in Spanish. It has very soft pulp and a flat seed and after a few minutes kneading is especially good for eating with yogurt or in a smoothy. You just bite a small hole in the top and squeeze the fruit out.
Transporting a kitten through the streets on a bicycle, is not advised. En route we encountered a hundred things to scare the bejesus out of poor kitten who was wrapped in a sarong inside a woven shopping basket. These included bicycle taxi’s with raggaeton blaring from their ghetto blasters, a steam train arriving into town blasting it’s horn, as it does, for a full minute to alert all and sundry, dogs fighting in the streets (most unusal as they are almost always sleeping or fornicating), 60 year old trucks, buses or Chevrolet motors screaming with exhaustion, mothers yelling for their children to come home, horse and carts cantering past and bad Cuban TV on full blast to name a few. Kitten who very strongly resembles Calico in more ways than one for those of you who knew him, has adapted to his new surrounds.
The new abode is very tranquil and we are usually woken by bird song which is a complete contrast to my last place of residence. 7 months of living in a very busy B&B was not always ideal but I think I will miss the interaction with tourists and hearing about what is happening in the outside world. It is always good to hear about their likes and dislikes and experiences as they travel around Cuba. It was particularly good for market research should I want to open my own B&B here and I have made some good contacts I think.
Last Sunday afternoon’s fishing trip was a very successful one. Our catch included 2 crabs, a lobster, a squid with its black ink, half a dozen rainbow coloured tropical fish and a snapper. Enough to feed the family of 6 we went with and Ossiel and I. Tigre, the cat had a special treat of lion fish, which has very poisonous fins but is apparently delicious when filleted. A storm rolled across the mountains drenching Trinidad and La Boca which was a visual treat, but sailed past us. It left in its wake a very dramatic sunset as the layers of cloud out over the ocean and above the mountains turned to varying shades of pink and sun beams fell on the horizon.
The kids took care of cleaning the fish in the rock pools before we headed home in the Chev, the black ink staining the fingers of one of the girls. Whilst Ossiel and his mate were diving we snacked on salt biscuits, homemade mayonnaise with lots of garlic and batitdo de nispero (Tropical fruit smoothy). Cubans are very fond of mayonnaise as a spread on both bread and biscuits. I started reading the latest book from Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden* and the teenagers with us told me that there wasn’t a culture of reading in Cuba, which saddens me but was something I was already aware of. We debated why this might be and decided that the price of books and the titles available discouraged most Cubans. Such a shame because the other arts – dance, art and design, music and film are thriving.
After spending almost $40 in the internet cafe I have secured flights for both Ossiel and I to visit Australia at the end of this month. There are a few significant birthdays to be celebrated amongst other important things to be done. Hooray for the Aussie embassy in Mexico who were very helpful. We are now negotiating with the Chile embassy which is not. If there is no joy there we will be camping at the airport for a day and a half in transit. We arrive on 23rd May and will be couch surfing until the end of July.
*Highly recommended tale of life in Pakistan post Sept 11th 2001, by a beautiful writer.