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Adventure — lifestyle

Winter Camping: Pemberton BC

I have camped in winter before but never in a tent. Always in a cabin. Not sure that counts as camping but anyway.

Winter camping (in a tent) has been on our list for a long time. We had a few different locations in mind:

  1. Golden Ears Provincial Park. Golden Ears has both walk in and drive in sites available throughout the winter.
  2. Joffre Lakes. We met some people before who hiked a little way in past the first lake and set up camp there. I have also heard of people camping in the parking lot in winter.
  3. The Red Heather hut on the way to Elfin Lakes. Apparently, it is permitted to tent camp outside the Red Heather hut in winter because it doesnt damage any of the plant life. The hut is for short stop offs only and over night use is not allowed but there is a stove if it got too cold.
  4. Nairn Falls. Nairn Falls is about a five minute drive from Pemberton and is available for camping all year, though you do have to carry your stuff in from the road as the parking lot is closed.

We decided on Nairn Falls because we would be close to the car and close to the town in case all did not work out.

We packed the essentials:

  1. Sleeping bag rated minus 18 degrees. This is MECs own brand and costs $189. It’s very warm but very bulky. It is a bit big for hike in camping but you get what you pay for. Light weight winter sleeping bags are expensive.
  2. Emergancy blanket. These are really cheap in MEC ($1.70) but they would only last for 2-3 uses. I bought a reusable one for $18. This is great for keeping the cold from the ground creeping up through the tent floor.
  3. Tarp for the underside of the tent.
  4. Burner. Our burner is run on gas and is one of the cheapest available in MEC but it is very dependable.
  5. Cooking utensils. Don’t want to get hungry. We usually bring food that just needs to be heated in the pan.
  6. Firewood. Because we were camping close to the car we brought fire wood. Enough to last the evening and morning. 6 bails was overkill but we used it all. 4 would have been enough.
  7. Fire log. Usually I dont use this, but I couldnt get the fire going so I’m not ashamed to admit that I cheated by nipping into Pemberton to grab a fire log. We did NOT want to be out there without a fire. If I am camping near the car in winter again I would bring one for emergency. We would have managed without a fire it would have just meant bed at 5pm and no hanging around in the morning.
  8. Tent. Our tent is a 3-4 man (cant remember) all season and was fine. We just layered up at night and had very warm sleeping bagss.
  9. Clothes. Thermals (top and bottom). Hiking pants. T shirt. Heavy sweater. Heavy parka. Gloves. Buff. 2 pairs of heavy socks. Wooly hat. Balaclava. Outer vest.
  10. Showshoes. Check out sportsjunkies for second hand gear.
  11. Shovel. I learned this lesson when somone forced me into the ditch on the way from Mount Baker to Sumas. We ended up digging the car out with snowboards so now I always keep a shovel in the car.
  12. Axe. Cant have a fire without an axe.



The weather was giving a chance of rain so we packed up and headed out regardless, hoping it wouldn’t be bad.

We were planning on hiking Joffre Lakes and spending the night back at Nairn but didn’t end up hitting Joffre.

It rained quite heavy during the day. We have camped enough in the rain to know it isn’t fun. We try to avoid it unless absolutely necessary. We decided to give it until 3 pm and had some food in Blackbird Bakery while we waited. Great place if you are ever in Pemberton.

The rain stopped and we headed for our campsite. There were quite a few cars parked on the road. I was worried about parking because the parking lot is closed in winter. It turned out these cars belonged to people visiting the falls. They weren’t spending the night. There was only one other camping group there overnight.

We got our gear into the site. The disadvantage of Nairn is the you have to walk in from the road in winter. The advantage is that it’s free, the road is relatively close and it’s quiet.

After struggling for an hour with the fire I went for a fire log. Another advantage – its a five min drive from the town. We didn’t drive for three hours to go without a fire. As mentioned above the fire log is a great emergency fire starter but if your hiking into the bush its too heavy. In that case I’d reccomend magnesium, cotton balls soaked in vaseline, kerosene or there are loads of other emergency starters. The hard core folk may call this cheating. No worries there probably right, but I like a fire and wasn’t freezing my ass off in the dark trying to get it started 😊

Another note on the fire. Snow is absorbant, so you dont need to worry about it melting to water and quenching the fire. It will end up sinking into a hole as the snow melts so you might lose heat when it gets too deep.

It stayed dry for the night and our new sleeping bags were amazing. We went to bed early and got up early to get the fire going again, had breakfast and went for a snowshoe hike around the campground.

I haven’t hiked much around Pemberton / Whistler but there are lots of trails if you wanted to try something more adventurous.

All in all it was a success. Especially considering Theresa is 5 months pregnant. Hopefully we’ll get one more trip in before she pops but well see.

Peace

George

PS. If you liked it – please share.

Argentina: Road Trip Buenos Aires to Mendoza

Top 10 Driving Tips for Argentina:

  1. You must ensure there is an issue with your license so that your spouse must drive all 2,300 km.
  2. Ensure you pass as many vehicles as possible.
  3. Ensure oncoming cars are within site and close enough to cause a collision before you overtake.
  4. Ignore stop signs.
  5. Assume you have the right of way at ALL junctions.
  6. Increase speed when dogs and small children are visible.
  7. Honk aggressively for all occasions.
  8. Drive as close to the car in front as possible.
  9. At night time, increase to maximum speed and maintain.
  10. DO NOT SLOW DOWN.

On a serious note:

  1. Avoid driving at night in the countryside. The roads are dominated by aggressive truck drivers.
  2. BE CAREFUL – it is not always clear who has the right of way.
  3. Stay off the dirt roads. We tried a short cut to avoid a detour and (wisely) abandoned the idea.
  4. Tolls are common. Have cash at the ready before setting out. Generally between 40 and 90 pesos for a car but I lost count of the amount we passed through on the way from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. At least 8 each way.
  5. Police presence is strong. We had no issues and they were all friendly but our documents were checked at least three times.
  6. Go with the flow. Drivers are impatient and erratic.

Monday

We picked up our rental car and hit the road. I recommend Baires Rental in Palermo. They speak English and are friendly and helpful.

If you are a good husband and like to share the driving, make sure you have a current license. If you are a bad husband and want your wife to drive all the way, then renew your license before the trip and present the temporary paper copy at the car rental agency. They won’t accept it and you can get away without driving for the entire trip. No problem. 🙂

The drive brought us through flat farm land, which could have been the Canadian prairies or even the Irish countryside in parts. Wealthy farm land, as far as I could tell, with ship shape new machinery everywhere. It was a far cry from the cow drawn ploughs of Cuba. The country side has cows everywhere. I suppose the country is known for its beef. Anyway, as a vegetarian, beef was definitely not on the menu for us.

We gave ourselves three days to reach Mendoza and picked Rufino as an ideal stopping point (450km from Buenos Aires).

Driving Route Buenos Aires to Rufino

It was late when we arrived. A crazy detour added about three hours to our journey, forcing us to drive at night. As mentioned in the above tips, I don’t recommend this. Truck drivers are aggressive and dangerous and there are a lot more on the road at night time.

We tried to avoid the detour by taking a dirt road, but it got too soggy and we were lucky we didn’t get stuck. An old saying says that “only a foolish man tries to take a two wheel drive Chevrelot off roading.”

Rufino is a Small town. As far as I could see there wasn’t a whole lot to do there but our Airbnb was cheap and extremely comfortable.

Our Air Bnb in Rufino

Our Air Bnb in Rufino

The countryside in Argentina is a tough one for vegetarians. Maybe a total non-runner for the vegan friends out there unless you are very well prepared. We could get food and didn’t starve but we were tired of bread and cheese by the time we reached Mendoza.

Tuesday

The next day was a 380km drive to Los Arroyitos guest house in Portrero De Los Funes.

Rufino to Portrero De Los Funes

The guest house was in the middle of the country side in the mountains, walking distance from the town. We were greeted warmly by Victor and breakfast was included the next day.

Los Arroyitos grounds

Our cabin at Los Arroyitos

Our room was comfortable and spacious

We were surprised at the high fences surrounding the road in the town at first. It was only when we saw the spectator stands that we realized we were driving on a racing circuit which gets used twice a year.

Some surprise racing on a circuit is essential

Dependable co-driver required

After a bit of yoga we headed to the town (small town) in search of food. Not an easy task for a pair of vegetarians. After wandering around for a bit we got some advice from a friendly local named Julio. Eventually we found somewhere and as if by magic Julio appeared again to make sure everything was OK and that we could get vegetarian food.

On our return trip we ended up eating at the hotel here which is a great option.

Friday

Yoga at 07.30 followed by breakfast. The terrain flattened out again until eventually we could see the snow-capped peaks of the Andes on the horizon. We had a 340km journey to our destination outside Mendoza which would be our home for the next few days.

Portrero De Los Funes to Portrerillos (outside Mendoza)

Wi-fi is scarce in the country side so decent hotels are always a good stop off point, in this case, the Intercontinental, where we got a good meal and could download our maps and contact our host at our next Airbnb which was about an hour from Mendoza.

Once we entered the Province of Mendoza, the climate was much dryer. We could feel it on our skin and our nostrils were dry. Moisturizer and lip balm are essential in desert areas. You will also immediately see the wineries once you enter the province.

Border to Mendoza – check points are common and your documents will be checked

We were greeted at the Airbnb by three happy dogs and Eduardo, the owner, who built all of the cabins on the property. It is situated in the countryside near a small town (if you could call it that). There is a shop 10 min walk away with some supplies and that’s about it. The isolation is perfect. Just us, the dogs and the mountains. And Eduardo pottering about here and there. There are also some restaurants and a brewery within a short drive if you get tired of the isolation.

We made friends

Our cabin consisted of a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom. No TV, which I love. We had wood stove as it gets cold in the winter and all the cooking essentials. Getting back2basics with the forty-three-year-old fridge also.

The view from our bedroom of the snow capped Andes (and our feet)

The dining area in our cabin with the 43 year old fridge on the left

Our bedroom

In the evening we had a snack of cheese and jam by the light of a candle and slept like the dead in the black of the desert (there was power we just like candle light).

Saturday

We woke in the morning to clear skies over the snow-capped Andes in front of us. When I stood to look out the dogs were sleeping outside waiting for us to emerge.

Every morning they waited outside our cabin

Outside view of our cabin – Our host lived in the red cabin on the right and was always available if needed

There are some other rental cabins on the property also

The plan for the day was to explore the wineries of Mendoza. It’s not like what I experienced in Kelowna, British Columbia, where you drop in and out of wineries having a taster here and there. It seems like you need a reservation in all the places we tried.

Mendoza is a big Province so maybe that is not the case in other areas. The wineries we visited were visited closer to the city and are smaller, so maybe that’s why.

Eventually after the fourth attempt we found a winery that would take us without a reservation and we got a 45 minute tour of Clos de Chacras winery (located here). The grounds were beautiful and it felt like we were in another world as we went from a built up area to this quiet winery. I would recommend you do your research before visiting any of the wineries (unlike me).

I found it interesting that in Argentina they actually openly (it’s a conspiracy theory in North America) release chemicals into the sky to change the weather. This is in an effort to reduce the size of hail which can be similar in size to golf balls.

Our tour was followed by a tasting of four wines. These tasters were full glasses and considering Theresa doesn’t drink I was obliged to help her out. Dinner also included two glasses of wine each, so I think even though we only hit one winery we had a decent wine experience.

It was good value, we got 50% off the tasting because we took the tour. So, 12 glasses of wine, dinner for two and the tour cost around 2,000 Pesos ($70 CAD / $53 USD / 47 EUR).

When we returned to our mountain getaway we walked to the shop. We asked Eduardo to keep the dogs in because they would follow us and chase cars. Funny enough on the way back up, there they were waiting for us on the road, so happy to see us.

Sunday

After breakfast we set out for an unused Ski hill. Our cabin is at 1,600m elevation and we probably climbed another 1,500m or so on the spectacular drive up. There are cabins all along the way for rent and quiet hotels high up in the mountains. That doesn’t take away from the isolated feel to the place.

Journey up the mountain to the ski hill

There were lots of horses and cows as we made our way up the unpaved switch backs. Our two-wheel drive car was fine for the climb but I’m sure that’s a different story in winter and I wouldn’t like driving up here in the snow.

Some of the sights along the road

Switch backs on the road up as we climbed around 1,500m

Once we arrived at the end of the road it seemed like there lots of trails. If you had the gear you could probably spend a few days hiking and camping around here. We met many hikers along the way and some of them were decked out for the long haul (others were applying make up for photos).

We hiked about an hour to a camp ground at 3,200m elevation

There air was clear, and the sky was blue. We were surrounded by mountains on all sides. My personal belief is that nowhere is closer to God (whatever God is for you) than the top of a mountain so I found it interesting to see a crucifix nestled between the rocks.

After this we headed for the Hot springs (Located here).

The roads were busy and thousands of people had come out to the countryside to stay by the lake or even dried up river beds). We paid a bit extra  (900 Pesos / $32 CAD / 21 EUR / $24 USD) to go to the hotel hot springs rather than the public ones as they were too busy.

On the return journey we stopped off at El Salto for a meal. It is a tiny town but there are a few restaurants. Google maps told me there was a  brew pub in the area. I was skeptical but there it was (Jerome brewpub) in the most unlikely place.

Jerome brewpub

It was the first night I took the time to look at the stars of the southern hemisphere and see patterns I did not recognize and could not put a name to.

Monday

It was as if the dogs sensed we were leaving. They did not wag their tails or say goodbye to us. They were sad and so were we. We said goodbye to Eduardo and hit the road, taking the same route back. In hindsight if you were to make this trip it would be a good idea to fly back from Santiago rather than making the return drive.

We made our stop off in at Los Arroyitos guest house in Portrero De Los Funes to be greeted by Victor again. This time we had no issues with the food as we went to the Hotel in town.

Along the way there are so many little shrines with empty water bottles outside. These are an homage to a Catholic saint (not recognized by the church) who died in the desert with her child (who survived). People (mainly truck drivers) leave bottles of water to quench her unending thirst.

The next day, Tuesday, we headed off through the countryside under a blanket of strange clouds to arrive at our Airbnb in Lincoln. This place was excellent and our host Patricia cooked the most fantastic dinner for us before bed and our final leg of the drive the next morning back to Buenos Aires, where we stayed in Palermo again.

I can’t wait to return to Argentina sometime and next time take in some of Chile and head further south to see Patagonia or north towards Bolivia. It is cheap but seems to be a wealthy country for the most part. People are friendly, and travel / accommodation is easy. It’s definitely better to speak some Spanish especially in the rural areas. The only hard part is the journey to get there (depending where your starting point is, I suppose).

Hope you enjoyed the blog.

Peace,

George

 

PS if you enjoyed this blog please share it in Facebook.

 

Argentina: Buenos Aires (First Time Round) & Lunch In Uruguay

Top 5 tips

  1. Taxis are cheap and reliable. Good for a chat and information also.
  2. Uber (in my opinion) is not reliable in Buenos Aires. The drivers usually rely on maps for navigation and the cars are not overly comfortable. Taxis are nicer.
  3. Vegetarian / Vegan food can easily be found in the City (contrary to what we were told – by non-vegetarians). Not so easy in the countryside.
  4. Cash is useful. One supermarket would not accept foreign credit cards, another required my passport to pay with CC.
  5. Many places ask to see your passport when paying by credit card.

Friday:

After leaving Cuba we had most of the day in Miami, so we got out of the airport and headed for Miami beach. After dinner at a vegetarian restaurant Full Bloom (good food but over priced) we walked the beautiful white sandy beach looking out on four cruise ships.

Miami Beach

Bad hair day

Before heading back to the airport, we had a drink and dessert among what appeared to be the social elite of this City. The verdict? I do not belong in Miami. Take that how you will, it is not intended to be an insult or a judgement on myself, it is just a fact.

Saturday:

My friend the sleeping pill helped me through the flight to Santiago where we had a brief stopover in the airport which was surrounded by mountains.

After a two-hour flight we landed in Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires. On leaving the airport, a taxi driver told us Uber was prohibited but we ignored this and got an Uber anyway. Unlike the US, the Uber cars are less comfortable than Taxis and probably around the same price, so the only advantage to using Uber is if you don’t have cash. The Taxis generally don’t take credit card. Also, the taxi drivers for the most park know the city. The Uber drivers don’t always, and some even had the GPS on their laps as they drove. Not the experience I want.

It took us about 50 minutes to get from the airport to Palermo (Traffic can be CRAZY).

Approximate drive from Ezeiza airport to Palermo

We got dropped off at Buenos Aires Verde for some great vegan food as we waited for check in time. In General Buenos Aires is a great city for vegetarian and vegan options. We had a six-minute walk to our AIR BnB.

Our Air BnB was comfortable and a reasonable price – cheaper than a hotel room

Palermo is a cool district, full of restaurants and bars. People are friendly and usually speak some English.

Sunday:

We started with rooftop yoga to keep the exercise up and headed out for lunch to Gratitude.

Yoga time

Gratitude – great food

Great vegan and vegetarian options here and then walked the city taking us to Bosques de Palermo, a large park with a beautiful rose garden and lakes.

One of the small lakes at Bosques De Palermo

Lots of people enjoying this busy but spacious park

Our walk then brought us closer to the Down town region of Buenos Aires, where it could easily be mistaken for European City with the mixture of old and new architecture. We stopped in to El Ateneo Grand Splendid, an old theater converted into a book shop. I was shocked at the price of books here and won’t be picking up any extra reading material.

This old theater is converted into a book store

Next, we headed to the water front past the Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, the presidential palace and had dinner looking out on the waterfront. There are lots of restaurants to chose from here though I’m thinking they are the more expensive.

The taxi driver who drove us back to Palermo told us about the strong Irish roots here and explained that Hanlon is a common name in Buenos Aires. Most people we have spoken to, just like Cuba, want to know if we are from Northern Ireland or the Republic. Our Taxi Driver, unlike Cuban people was well aware of Che Guevara’s Irish roots and knew that he came from the name Lynch.

Monday:

We went to Uruguay for lunch. We got up early to catch the ferry to Colonia, a Uruguayan town approximately 1-hour journey away.

Ferry to Colonia

Warning: DO NOT use the Google Maps location for the ferry terminal. I did, and we ended up missing the ferry and paying for the later one as the Google Maps location is nowhere near the actual ferry terminal. I suppose a reasonable person would use the address on the tickets rather than the Google location but there you have it.

Red pin shows Google maps location, yellow highlight is the actual location

The Ferry ride is expensive (1700 Pesos = $63 CAD) but It is worth it. Colonia is a peaceful haven (probably a different story in high season) full of sleeping dogs and cats and a few tourists ambling around.

Just like Cuba, more sleeping dogs

The cobbled streets are quiet and there is not much going on but it’s a great getaway from busy Buenos aires

Some of the old cars here were reminiscent of Cuba

Sssshhh…..

Half a day in Colonia was more than enough time but I’m sure there are things to do if you intend to spend more time here. It would be a good way to start your Uruguayan trip if you plan on spending time in the country. We ate lunch in El Drugstore which offered great veggie options. We ordered fantastic spicy potatoes and had some Mate, a kind of tea which you see people regularly drinking.

Mate is drank through a straw. Hot water is poured on top of a cup full of tea leaves

I am the sort of person who does not stand in line for airplanes, buses, ferry’s etc., especially if I have a seat reserved. I don’t understand the mad rush when everyone will get a seat regardless. Not the case here. If you don’t line up, you won’t get a seat and the ferry is not a comfortable place to stand for an hour or even sit on the ground. Take the time to stand in line.

When we got back we had some Mexican food and hit a bar which miraculously sprung up right next door to our apartment. There had been no sign of it the days before.

Tuesday:

It rained. It was nice. We had breakfast across the road at Crisol. It seems like a chain but had great breakfast options. I ordered incredibly healthy pancakes covered in Nutella.

In the evening we hit a yoga class with friend (of a friend) Dani whose family owns Caravan Hostel. This is a cool place in the middle of Palermo and is a great option for accommodation.

Sweaty class, though from the pick it looks like I was the only one who thought so

After a shower we met two more friends (of a friend) – Gonzalo and Augustin at 9.30 PM (Argentinians eat late) for pizza at El Cuartito. River Plate were playing in the soccer that evening, I’m not sure why they play their games so late but the people watching went MENTAL when they scored. Soccer is a big deal here apparently.

Buenos Aires is such a cool City. It is so modern, with a great mix of older buildings and has so much to do. But after a few days it was time to grab a car and head across the country. Stay tuned for the next blog on the road trip.

Peace,

George

Havana: A City Of Sleeping Dogs

Top 7  tips

  1. Taxis (not including the classic American cars) are cheap and a great way to get info from the local drivers.
  2. The classic American cars are expensive but worth using once. I recommend the City tour.
  3. Havana is NOT cheap. Similar prices for eating out to Vancouver / Dublin.
  4. Havana is SAFE. There are severe consequences for crime against tourists.
  5. Renting a car should be organised with as much notice as possible. We tried renting two days before our planned journey and there was nothing available in the entire City.
  6. It makes things a LOT easier if you speak Spanish.
  7. Cash is essential – credit cards are generally not accepted.

Sunday

We booked our accommodation through Air Bnb which organized airport pick up for 35 CUC ($46 CAD / 31EUR). This was more expensive than what we paid on our return trip to the airport ($20 CUC) so when you consider that the CUC is more or less on a par with the American Dollar, that’s a big difference. (1CUC = $1.32CAD = 0.88EUR)

Cuba has two currencies, The CUP and the CUC. The CUC is specifically for tourists, so always be aware what you are parting with – at one point we had a disagreement with a waitress as she told us we paid with the local currency rather than the tourist currency. I assume she was correct and that we made a mistake but be aware of the difference and what you are using.

We were met at the airport by Mr. Omar, the owner of the apartment we were staying at. We had been advised to take out cash and change our money at the airport. There is nothing wrong with this plan but we had no problem taking out money from an ATM or changing cash in Havana.

We emerged from the airport in to the hot night air and changed our cash. Mr. Omar spoke no English like many people here so it is useful if you speak Spanish. He brought us to a sleeping driver in an ancient brown Lada and we headed to our Air BnB in Old Havana which took about forty minutes as Mr. Omar and the mysterious driver explained some of the landmarks.

Almost all of the buildings in Havana are old. They are stunning. Ancient and powerful. They bear the scars of time but stand proud, however some are in disrepair. It is encouraging to see restoration work underway on many of the buildings.

Typical Havana street scene

I always make a point to take pictures of impressive doors – there are so many in Havana

The other thing that struck me on the way from the airport was the cars. The regular cars are less loved but the old American classics seem to be the pride of the nation. They are in immaculate condition and most of them shine like they are new.

These old American cars cost between $50,000 $80,000 USD. This is an absolute fortune to locals

On arriving at our Air BnB, we were brought up a dimly lit stairway, through a hallway with cracks in the walls and exposed electrical cables and into our apartment which was clean and nicely furnished. The fridge was stacked with bottled water, beer and rum all for a reasonable price. Our bedroom was refreshingly cool with the air con. This turned out to be such a nice getaway in the heat of the middle of the day.

Monday

We arrived in the dark so, on waking it was nice to pull open the old style shutter doors onto our balcony which overlooks the cobbled stones / pavers of O’Rielly St. The view across the road presented two old, beautiful buildings.

As we walked through the streets we could see that construction and restoration work is rife everywhere. The buildings truly are a treasure here. I hope that tourism and western influence never cheapens the value of this City. At night time, the streets are alive with people and music, though it is difficult to find anything other than the traditional Cuban music which becomes repetitive after some time.

Locals are friendly in Havana, sometimes they have an ulterior motive like asking for cash or trying to sell something and sometimes they don’t. They one great thing about the Cuban people is that they can take no for an answer. If you do not want a taxi, do not want to eat in their restaurant or do not want to buy anything, they are happy to take no for an answer and will thank you. It can be easy in some countries to get frustrated with the constant hassle from vendors but here, be polite and you will receive politeness in return.

Evening came and we went to see the Buena Vista Social Club on the recommendation of a local man we met. I don’t remember the price (it was around $100 CAD / person). I remember it was not cheap but it was good food and great entertainers for a fixed price.

Tuesday

We decided to take a tour in a classic car. 50CUC ($66 CAD) for one hour. The driver was full of information and even though it was expensive, I would highly recommend it. I tried to haggle on the price, but that didn’t get me anywhere as there are so many tourists here to keep them in business.

I did NOT drive as the pic suggests

As the title suggests, Havana is a City of sleeping dogs – there are sleeping dogs EVERYWHERE so I we thought it would be a good idea to make a compilation

…..And…..some cats….

And more dogs……

It was refreshing to meet Benny, another Irish man who happened to be photographing the dogs also. He told us about the plaque on O’Reilly Street which written in Irish, English and Spanish about two island nations united in struggle. The name O’Reilly, comes from Alejandro O’Reilly, a mercenary who fought for the Spanish and led the Spaniards back into Havana after taking it back from a brief British occupation.

“Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope – Cuba and Ireland”

The locals always want to know where you are from and seem interested in Ireland. Almost all of them ask if you are from the North or the South, suggesting that they have an interest or knowledge in Irish politics, though I did not bring the conversation further. I did, however, find it interesting when I mentioned Che Guevara’s strong Irish roots, they were unaware. Maybe they want to keep their Argentinian / Irish hero all to themselves.

In the evening we walked the Malecon and came to a Fort. 2CUC to enter and it seemed like it would stay open all through the night. A peaceful area to get away from the hustle and bustle of Havana. The architecture of the Fort reminded me of the fort we visited in Kinsale on our honeymoon.

Wednesday

There are no yoga studios close to Old Havana, so it was self-practice for this part of the trip. It felt like a hot yoga session, even when I practiced in the morning. I sweated like Christy Moore pounding on a Bodhran.

Being a writer (aspiring) I wanted to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home. He lived here for around twenty years. The only Hemingway book I have read (so far) is The Old Man and The Sea, which is set in Cuba. I recommend it. It is an easy read.

Ernest Hemingway

We had thought about booking the Hemingway experience online on Air BnB. It sounded cool but cost more than $100CAD each so we decided to take a Taxi. The classic cars wanted to charge 80CUC each way which is outrageous, but we flagged another taxi, a tiny, 1988 Fiat Punto, driven by Alexis (one of the most talkative taxi drivers I have ever met).

Alexis offered to take us there for 20CUC ($26 CAD / 18EUR) or to take us there, hang around for an hour or more and take us back for 35CUC ($46 CAD / 31EUR). This was perfect, so we went with that. We also ended up booking him to take us back to the airport for 20CUC rather than the 35CUC we paid first time round, so it pays to make a few contacts and have a chat with the taxi drivers.

His car was less than luxurious and had no seat belts, so if you are ok with that you are onto a winner. He was extremely friendly. My Spanish is at a level where I only understood about 60% of what he said but that did not stop him. He told us that the classic cars can cost around 50,000 CUC. He has a passion for them and every classic car that past he would tell me the year and the make. Some dated back to the 1930s.

The drive took us about 45-50 minutes through another Municipality, into the Town on San Fransisco.

It seems Hemingway had a lavish life here. The house is beautiful and is more or less as he left it. He donated it to the people of Cuba. You cannot go inside, but everything is visible from the windows and you can walk the gardens. The restaurant next door is only ok and doesn’t have great vegetarian options, just like the restaurants in general (there is only so much vegetarian pizza you can eat).

The interior of Hemingway’s home

Part of the garden area at Hemingway’s home

In the evening time we took a ferry (2 CUC) across to Casa Blanca and walked up the hill to the statue of Jesus which is a great viewpoint for the City. There are also two forts on this side of the water to visit. Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña and Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro.

We only made it to Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña as it was late. It is huge, like a town inside. I can only imagine the bustle of activity among the Spanish soldiers stationed there when it was in use. There are many people selling tourist nick knacks but no pressure to buy. There is also a restaurant inside.

This side of the water is a completely different place to Havana. It is so much quieter, and it doesn’t feel like you are in a big City at all. I recommend visiting if you want a bit of peace and quiet.

It didn’t surprise me that there was a problem with the ferry for the return trip (I am told public transport is unreliable) – the lights were out so it wasn’t travelling. Situations like these are great examples of why you want to have some Spanish. We walked back up the hill a bit, just in time to grab the number 66 bus back to the City (0.5 CUC). A little slower than the boat at about forty minutes.

We listened to some music in La Plaza de Catedral when we got back as we watched some partiers dance in the square while they drank from a bottle of rum.

Thursday

We booked a day out on Air BnB and Jackson, our guide for the day, or Jocsan as he is correctly named, arrived to pick us up and we boarded a mini bus with the driver and his wife and mother in law tagging along for the ride with two other tourists from New York.

We had a 2.5-3 hour drive to Pinar Del Rio with a stop half way.

Our destination was on the outskirts of a small, quiet town with lots of rooms to rent to tourists. It would be a nice place to spend some more time. We got out of the minibus to have some rum and freshly squeezed sugar cane before a short tour through some big caves which ended in a boat ride through an underground river.

The next stop was the tobacco farm where Tomas (one of the workers) talked us through the process and showed us how to roll cigars. There was plenty of rum and cigars on offer to drink and smoke when we were there and also to buy. I bought 10 Cigars for 10 CUC ($13 CAD / 9 EUR). We also sat down for a drink with the owner of the farm, Benito Camejo Nodarse.

Benito Camejo Nodarse

The farm has been in this man’s family for five generations, he is the type of person I could sit down and have a pint with.

Again, there was no pressure to buy anything here and this was made clear by our tour guide before we arrived.

Tomas explained the manufacture process and demonstrated rolling a cigar which we smoked

Tobacco leaves

The tobacco drying shed

After the tobacco farm we mounted some horses (with no instruction whatsoever, though I am sure the horses know exactly where they are going and what they are doing) and headed into the fields for an hour or so where we eventually came to a farm to have more rum and a chat with the owners. They really do live the back2basics life with no electricity, the simple life on the farm. For me this is true freedom.

Our grim horse guide

We drank fresh squeezed sugar cane with…….more rum

Animal power seems to be favored over tractors in the country side

After lunch (with an amazing view) we headed back to Havana under a blood red moon as we listened to Michael Jackson play on the radio.

If you want to save some money, all of the above could quite easily be accessed without a tour guide or through a tour company if you rented your own car or even rented a driver or shared taxi. Apparently, this can be much cheaper than renting cars.

Friday

Time to get out of Dodge, Alexis, the same taxi driver who brought us to the Hemingway house picked us up bang on time (20 CUC to the airport) and that was the end of Havana. For me, five nights was more than enough. I think the City could be experienced in less, unless you intend to use it as a base for different day trips. If we are to visit Cuba again we will travel the country and make it less of a city visit.

Havana is truly a classical city, magical in a way with the old cars and buildings standing the test of time. Buildings built as they should be, to last hundreds of years, rather than what we see being erected today in Canada and cars from the 30s 40s and 50s still going strong. The buildings and cars are a testament to the people of Havana who have a though life. On first impressions it seems like they have it good until you dig a bit deeper and hear how difficult it is to make money, how infrequently they have electricity and how difficult it is to leave the country for something more. I sensed sadness in the voices of people when I innocently (foolishly in hindsight) asked if they had traveled to different countries.

Regardless, it is changing. You can see that, even from my perspective from a short visit and it will continue to change. I can only hope that the change will be for the better of the people and that they can keep the strong character which defines the city.

Peace,

George

 

P.S. Keep an eye out for my You Tube video when I return.

Toronto – A City Of Brick

I want to change up my style of blogging a little over the next couple of posts to give you the highlights of our month off to travel. First stop Toronto.

I have a fear of flying. Well not really. I used to, but what I do have a fear of, is being stuck in a small cylinder, cruising along at about 750kph at a height of 37,000 feet with three hundred or so other people.

I learned a long time ago that I can only deal with this for about three hours. The solution? Pop a sleeping pill. And I mean a proper prescription pill from the doctor, not some herbal remedy or melatonin. A good strong pill that will knock me the hell out. The result? A blissful flight where I’m out cold before we even take off and don’t wake for hours.

After landing, we took a train from Pearson Airport to Central Station (it’s quick and easy). From here we took a taxi to Liberty Village where we were staying with our friend Donna.

After breakfast, in an effort to practice Yoga as much as possible, we hit Pure Yoga. The studio has a cool vibe and offers (tough) hot yoga classes. I don’t usually practice hot yoga but enjoyed this for a change. I recommend this studio if you are staying in the Liberty village area.

Once we got ourselves in order we headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario which was showing an exhibition called Anthropocene. It is a photographic display of the permanent effects that humans are having on the planet. Future man made fossils or remnants which may outlive us as a race. The most stunning visual for me was the video of burning elephant tusks which had been collected over the years from poachers.

As darkness fell (across the land) we hit Casa Loma, an early twentieth century castle which done its best to scare the living hell out of us with a haunted house display. It is one of those haunted houses where you’re not entirely sure if its an actor or a dummy you are looking at until they come to life and give you a mild aneurism.

I highly recommended it if you are ever in Toronto around Halloween. It was a long line up but it moved quick. The journey through the castle took us about an hour and a half and brought us through an underground tunnel, across the street to finish in a separate building. The bar at the midway point was a welcome stop off also.

An ancient Jamaican taxi driver named Gordon Neville took us home as jazz music played in his cab and he recommended that I cuddle my “wo-man” when I got back. Or was his name Neville Gordon? Who knows. I love the random conversations like this with people who you will likely never see again.

The next day, Saturday brought us to yoga again, followed by a walk around the Kensington market area. It has great character and  diversity, I hope it will not be replaced by the poor-quality development that we see so much of in Vancouver.

 

 

The Burdock Lounge hosted Danial Champagne that night. He is a refreshingly humble Australian singer songwriter who is absolutely fantastic on the guitar.

Sunday, our last day in Toronto brought us through the Brickworks area a beautiful, quiet getaway in the Don Valley, clear from the hustle and bustle of the city but close enough to see the CN Tower on the skyline. Apparently, the history of Toronto can be told through the brown and red brick which presents itself to you everywhere throughout the City.

After this we explored the characteristic brick buildings and cobbled roads of the Distillery District where we had lunch in El Catrin. It was strange to wake up and walk to yoga at zero degrees knowing that it would be approximately thirty degrees at our next destination.

This was my third time to visit Toronto. It is too urban and vast for a country boy like me to live in but I don’t think I will ever tire of visiting here. Toronto’s defining feature, for me, is the character of the City, which shines strongly through the people, streets and buildings, brought together by the characteristic autumn shades of the yellow, red and brown brickwork found at every corner everywhere.