In my last post of our Cuban tour, we had just returned to our homestay in Viñales after a very heavy night out at an outdoor salsa bar. The next instalment of our G Adventures trip sees us depart the lush greenery of the west, throw up on a bus, get eaten alive on the coast, see three fish on a one hour snorkelling trip, pick up a finger injury in a pretty aggressive game of Irish snap, trek down a waterfall and finally return to the relative safety of Havana. Phew! Despite all the drama, did we have fun? Read on to find out…
Day 4 – Viñales – Maria La Gorda
Uh oh! We didn’t notice our alarm going off this morning so we were 15 minutes late to breakfast. Our poor mama had to microwave our food for us and we felt awful! Once we had eaten, we paid our bill and packed up our things ready to leave Viñales.
It was only once we were on the bus that we realised how much of a heavy night last night actually was! Most of us felt pretty unwell, and that feeling was only made worse by the incredibly windy and bumpy roads as we headed further west. The bus stopped to show us Pinar del Rio – a town with a cigar factory where the group watched some workers roll cigars (half of us sat outside) and a rum factory where the group learnt how to make rum (half of us sat on the bus). After that, the bus took us through beautiful countryside but I couldn’t fully appreciate it as… Yes! I was that girl that threw up on the bus! But, my word, did I feel better after that..!
Back on the road, we stopped off at a petrol station to buy a delicious lunch of microwave pizza. Yum. Just as we sat down outside to eat it, the heavens opened and we all rushed back on to the bus. The rain got so heavy and eventually thunder and lightning came in to join the party. We even saw a bolt of lightning hit the sea as we drove along the coast, which was incredible! Sadly no photos of that 🙁
Our destination, Maria la Gorda (literally translates as Fat Mary), takes its name from a lady who was marooned on the peninsula and set up ‘shop’ to stay alive. It’s a funny name for a really tragic story. Nowadays, it’s a haven for snorkellers and divers who want to explore the Caribbean Sea and not much else.
When the bus arrived at the resort, we were greeted with the wonderful news that the water system was broken and had been for five days. They were able to give us an hour of water three times a day, but other that that, there was no water to wash, use the toilet or brush our teeth. Disaster! We spent the rest of the afternoon in our room waiting for the water to come on long enough for us to wash our hands but no more…
Our room is actually amazing. We have a view of the sea, perfectly functioning air conditioning and two enormous and comfortable beds. The rooms are laid out in little buildings or cabins each with four en-suite rooms, so it feels a bit like university!
We met our tour group in reception for dinner and found most of them had managed to shower – lucky buggers! We perused the buffet but none of us fancied fried fish heads so we decided to take a punt on the Italian style restaurant on the beach front. This was a BIG MISTAKE for two reasons:
- The mosquitos and sand fleas. There were loads of them and despite wearing tropical strength DEET and long clothes, I managed to get absolutely covered in bites. I looked like a pin cushion!
- The wait. It took almost two hours for us to get our food. We felt sorry for the staff who had probably never had such a big group, all ordering at the same time. In their defence, the food was great, but I had pretty much finished my seafood pizza by the time Tim’s arrived.
After all our food arrived and everything had been eaten (including ourselves), we paid our bill and headed back to our room to scratch the living daylights out of our legs. Top tip: Don’t scratch.
Day 5 – Maria la Gorda
This morning my prayers were answered – a shower! Albeit a cold one, but a shower all the same! With a clean body and a renewed vigour that wouldn’t let the mosquitos get the better of me, we went for breakfast in the buffet restaurants. It was – interesting – with fruit, plasticky eggs, omelettes, toast and other foods left over from last night’s dinner (thankfully no sign of the fish heads though, they must have been really popular).
Our bellies full of toast, we met the group ready for our excursion into the Guanhacabibes National Park. We picked up our wonderful guide, who gave us a running commentary of the different animals and features we would see on our trip. He stopped the bus every so often so we could pile off and see some amazing things like an underwater cave with perfectly clear water, a giant crab, some iguanas, a turtle sanctuary, a forest destroyed by Hurricane Katrina (it still hasn’t recovered) and even a cave full of bats, tarantulas and two baby boa constrictors.
Our favourite part of the trip was when we saw the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird. It’s native to Cuba but actually quite rare to see, so we were very lucky to see two of them. This photo doesn’t do it justice, because a fully grown bee hummingbird is actually smaller than my thumb!
We reached Roncali lighthouse which marked the end of the peninsula and the westernmost point of Cuba, where we were treated to a beautiful view of the crystal blue sea and Mexico in the distance. On the journey back to the hotel, the guide put on a DVD showing us more about the wildlife in Cuba, including some of the species we had seen today as well as some sharks and other deadly fish that got me really nervous about our snorkelling trip later…!
Back at the hotel, we bought some pringles to eat for lunch before changing in to our swimming gear. We met the group’s boat down on the jetty and were taken out to an area called The Aquarium in the Caribbean Sea. The journey out there was wonderful, with beautiful views of the beach and coastline. For somewhere called The Aquarium it was a little bit disappointing – there were hardly any fish down there, but the coral was very pretty. After a while, I got back on the boat to carry on enjoying the amazing scenery.
My evening was spent medicating my bites (I’ve lost count how many I have) before we headed back to the Italian restaurant where we made sure to get a table inside. We still spent the majority of the night trying to kill mosquitos that dared drop by our table, but enjoyed the food none the less.
Once we had eaten, the insect bites became a bit too much for me (Tim estimates I have over 100 now) so I went back to the room to medicate some more and blast the air conditioning on full power to try and stem the itching.
Day 6 – Maria la Gorda – Soroa
This morning we spent 5 hours on the bus to Soroa, but it was worth it to get away from the mosquitos! We had a couple of stops along the way where we bought some pringles (unofficial sponsors of the trip) to keep us going for the journey. The bus took us back through Pinar del Rio and then headed up high into the mountains to reach Soroa. There, we visited an orchid farm and were shown around by a local guide who introduced us to the different flowers, trees and plants of the botanical gardens. It was lovely!
Once our tour of the garden was over, we walked over to the other major sight of Soroa – a beautiful waterfall down 200 very steep steps. We enjoyed the way down much more than the way back up, but the waterfall made up for the hike.
It was a very hot and sweaty trek so we were pleased to find out the next stop was our hotel! We checked into Villa Soroa where I couldn’t wait to settle in to my room. I was completely fed up from my bites so stayed there watching movies on my phone for the afternoon while Tim made it up to the highest peak in Soroa with a couple of others from the group.
While he was up there, I could hear a storm brewing outside with huge claps of thunder and bright lightning. Luckily, it wasn’t long until Tim came back, completely drenched, and I was glad to have stayed inside with The Hunger Games on my phone!
We visited the buffet restaurant for dinner before heading over to the hotel bar for drinks. We played some card games (one of which sprained my finger – I just can’t catch a break!) and then watched the lightning light up the sky over the mountains before heading back to bed ready for the final leg of our tour back to Havana tomorrow.
Day 7 – Soroa – Havana
This morning we visited Las Terrazas – a community set up in the 1960s which has now become a UNESCO biosphere reserve. There are houses, schools, a coffee shop and hotel all set around beautiful trees, lakes and hills. When we got off the bus, we heard from one of the residents tell us about her home and what the locals do to protect the environment.
After a walk through the community, along a bridge and down a hill, past a monkey on an island (random) and back to the bus, we were on the home straight to Havana!
Our first stop in the city was Revolution Square where we walked around the Jose Marti monument to look out over Havana and had the obligatory group shot in front of Che. Julio then took us on a walking tour of the city before we stopped for lunch in an Italian restaurant, which was actually amazing! There was a live band playing traditional Cuban hits and they served really good food. It definitely took my mind off my bites! We did a little souvenir shopping before finishing off our tour in the city’s old squares.
The rest of the group were staying in homestays for the night, but Tim and I had booked into a hotel as we would be staying in Havana for a few more days. Our hotel is exactly what I needed – the Iberostar Parque Central is a luxury hotel right in the centre with large, clean rooms, huge bathrooms and air conditioning that works like a dream. The bed is massive and really comfortable, and we even have a little balcony looking into the central courtyard. There, we made the most of the comfort and took long, hot showers and a good nap before we headed out again for the night. I couldn’t be happier.
We met the group for our last dinner all together at El Guajarito – a restaurant which was probably set up for tourists but still served delicious food at great prices. For just 15 CUC, I had bread, vegetable soup, shrimp and lobster, rice, salad, ice cream and a cocktail! It was amazing!
After the meal, we all said goodbye to Julio and thanked him for being our guide. Then, we went next door to see a tribute to the Buena Vista Social Club which featured some original singers from the group. We had a huge table right in front of the stage where we could enjoy the fantastic show that had us all singing and dancing along. I honestly can’t rave about it enough and would recommend it to anyone visiting Havana.
After the show, we met Ivan our driver outside with the bus who dropped us off at our hotel. Before we got off the bus, we had to say an emotional goodbye to the group as this would be the last time we saw them before we went our separate ways. We really were very lucky with our group – everyone was so friendly and easy to get on with and I will genuinely miss all of them! We have a lot of new friends now and a lot of new places to visit.
Back at the hotel, we were exhausted and couldn’t wait to get a decent night’s sleep in our wonderful bed. Zzzzzzzzzz…..
Despite the mosquitos of Maria la Gorda doing their best to put a downer on the trip, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face when I arrived back in Havana. Have you ever been to Maria la Gorda? Were you as unlucky as me?