Cats And Ghosts. Battles Of San Juan

San Juan View from Fort San Felipe

San Juan View from Fort San Critobal

Old San Juan is full of cats. You have to be very careful not to step on a cat when walking around looking up at old historical buildings, for the cats, like shadows, blend with the cobblestones paving the narrow streets of the old city.

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Founded by the Spanish colonist Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521 on the north-eastern coast of the island, San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico is the capital of Puerto Rico and the second oldest European capital city in the New World after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

Enclosed by massive stone walls at the mouth of San Juan Bay, Old San Juan is today a major cultural tourist destination attracting visitors with its ancient two-storied houses, a network of narrow streets covered by adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag brought over as ballast on Spanish ships, historical buildings housing museums and cultural organizations, public squares, and cathedrals.

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But the most important buildings declared National Historic Sites here are the city’s former defense forts: Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristobal, a part of humanity’s cultural patrimony.

El Morro

El Morro

Built by the Spanish government in the 16th and 17th century the two forts defended this important seaport used by merchant and military ships traveling between Spain and the Americas against foreign powers.

Battles of San Juan

Many battles took place outside the stone walls of these ancient forts, battles of epic proportions. In 1595 Sir Francis Drake attacked the city but the El Morro’s canons repelled the English battleships.

In 1625 the city was assaulted by the Dutch but El Morro withstood once more and was not taken. Instead, a counterattack left many Dutch soldiers dead after Puerto Rican soldiers and civilian volunteers of the city militia boarded and defeated the Dutch ships.

In 1797, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the British attacked San Juan once again but the siege of the city was unsuccessful and the British army was forced to withdraw in defeat for a second time.

Finally, in May of 1898 United States Navy ships arrived at San Juan Bay. The American bombardment caused a lot of destruction on the city, but the Spanish forces commanded by Captain Mendez heroically withstood the attack for many days. Yet, with just one signature, Spain ceded the island to the United States after the Treaty of Paris agreement. Puerto Rico became and remains to this day an unincorporated territory of the United States.

During the next century, many uprisings against the United States occurred in different places in Puerto Rico all by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and failed. One of the most notable ones is the uprising in San Juan on October 30, 1950. A group of nationalists attacked the residence of the Puerto Rican governor and the United States Federal Court House. The battle between the nationalists and the police lasted 15 minutes and four of the five attackers were killed.

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

Walking next to the stone walls all around the small island looking at the bay, and through the narrow streets of Old San Juan stepping on the blue cobblestones from the Spanish colonial era, roaming inside the dark humid corridors of El Morro and Fort San Felipe is an unforgettable journey back in history and our best experience in Puerto Rico.

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Maya

Maya

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Felipe

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Cristobal

 

San Juan Cathedral

San Juan Cathedral

View of San Juan

View of San Juan

 

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Bimini, Gateway to the Bahamas

Beach, North Bimini

Beach, North Bimini, Bahamas

 

The Bahamas is truly a fascinating place. It is a country made of water, ancient lava, and sand. Of its 470,000 km2 of territory less than 5% is land: a chain of over 700 bizarre-shaped flat tropical islands and cays.

Bimini, the closest island to the United States mainland only 40 miles east of Miami, is our gateway to the Bahamas. We drop anchor in front of Big Game marina and clear customs and immigration in under one hour. None of the Bahamian officials has any intention of inspecting the boat; it is only a question of filling a few forms and paying the entry fee of $320 (even though it is printed $300 on the receipt).

We spend two days walking around South Bimini and visiting Alice Town on North Bimini.

Bahamian lizard

Bahamian lizard

In the Bahamas we were expecting to find luxurious hotels and resorts, crowds of vacationing tourists, and Johnny Depp chilling on the beach. Instead, we find ourselves in a sleepy settlement of a few hundred inhabitants surrounded by vast sandbanks, its small houses with boarded windows painted pale blue yellow and pink, the cars driving on the wrong side of the narrow streets without sidewalks.

Bimini Big Game Club

Bimini Big Game Club

There are about five or six shops in Alice Town of which four sell alcohol, a church, a school, a bank, and a little dark library, totally abandoned, with piles of wet books lying all over the place, the librarian is nowhere to be found.

Bimini library

Bimini library

Hardly any other tourists but us are to be seen walking around and the locals all smile and say hi, how are you. They look chill, and slowly, without pressure, decorate the town for the Christmas festival which begins at noon.

A small stage with huge speakers on both sides is being installed in front of the church. Across the street, on a vast green loan, a trampoline for the kids and tables where women sell homemade delicacies out of pans and pots are already set. Grilled fish, rice and beans, fried chicken, ox tail in tomato sauce: everything 10 dollars. Men are standing by in the shades sipping beers, waiting for the music to begin. There will be a live performance organized by the school and later, when the sun goes down in the Gulf Stream, everyone will dance and have fun.

Stage for the Christmas festival

Stage for the Christmas festival

We like this place. After almost a month of intense work on the boat we switch into a chill mode.

South Bimini beach and anchorage.  The boat anchored in the distance is Fata Morgana

South Bimini beach and anchorage.
The boat anchored in the distance is Fata Morgana

 

Ivo and a Bahamian friend talking about life on Mars in the little boat crossing from South to North Bimini

Ivo and a Bahamian friend talking about life on Mars in the little boat crossing from South to North Bimini

 

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Old house destroyed by storm, Alice Town, Bimini

Old house destroyed by storm, Alice Town, Bimini

 

 

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Fishing In Lake Izabal, Guatemala. A Photo Essay

 

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In Guatemala, indigenous people of Mayan descent make up almost 50% of the population, concentrated in the mountains and rural areas.

This is the country with the largest indigenous community in all of Central and South America.

 

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The Maya of today have preserved to a great extend the culture of their ancestors: languages, clothing, rituals and beliefs; the vital connection to land and nature.

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Chac-Uayab-Xoc: the Great Demon Shark

 

Corn and fish are the main food source of the Mayan Q’eqchi communities we met on the shores of Lake Izabal.

For thousands of years the Mayans worshiped the maize god; they believed their ancestors were made from maize.

They also had a fish-god.

Chac-Uayab-Xoc, also known as the Great Demon Shark, is the protector of fish and patron of fisherman. He feeds off the bodies of drowned fishermen, but ensures that the fishermen have good catches.

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Photos by Mira

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mayans of Guatemala are the only indigenous culture that constitutes a majority of the population in a Central American republic. – See more at: http://www.minorityrights.org/2555/guatemala/maya.html#sthash.7kI5NaZ4.dpuf
The Mayans of Guatemala are the only indigenous culture that constitutes a majority of the population in a Central American republic. – See more at: http://www.minorityrights.org/2555/guatemala/maya.html#sthash.7kI5NaZ4.dpuf
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Men With Machetes, Bones With Souls, Mountains With Secrets

“Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.”
-Rigoberta Menchu Tum

Lake Izabal

Lake Izabal

„Are you afraid of death?” he asks me with the same intonation as if he is asking Do you like yellow flowers. I don’t know how to answer. My mouth becomes dry. „When you go to the graveyard, are you scared?” he clarifies.

„When I was a little girl, yes, I was scared of death and to go in graveyards, but now no. Now I am more afraid of the living than of the death.“ We both lough at the joke.

 

Hiking through the jungle

Hiking through the jungle

 

We are walking on a dirt road through a vast plantation of palm trees, the guy and me, past a palm-oil treatment plant, across a wide shallow river, and into the shadow of a jungle-covered mountain. Ivo, Joni, and the two other guys are walking ahead of us. We met them this morning. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they are good guys or bad guys. All we know is that they are young indigenous Q’eqchi men who agreed to take us to a cave in the mountain above their village. They are wearing jeans, t-shirts and black rubber boots, carrying small backpacks and machetes.

 

Cutting a nut-like fruit called Monok from a spiky tree

Cutting a nut-like fruit called Monok from a spiky tree

 

The whole thing happened spontaneously. We were sailing along the remote edge of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake. It was getting late; we had to find a place to anchor overnight. We approached the shore where a big column of grey smoke was coming out of the forest: a village, we thought, and that’s where we stopped. From the boats we saw a few houses on the banks of the lake. Tiny, made of thin logs and roofs of dry palm leaves. Behind them, the heavy humid mountains of Sierra de las Minas: white limestone covered with thick intensely green jungle. The night fell.

In the morning the entire village gathered on the shore to meet our kayak. Caxclampon Pataxte is a small community of a few hundred indigenous Q’eqchi, mostly children. Tourists don’t stop here often, and so our visit is a huge event.

 

The people from the village greeting us

The people from the village greeting us

 

“Are there caves near-by?” I ask. Only a few speak Spanish.

„Yes, there is a cave not too far; we can take you there if you like.“ Thus begun our journey.

Once we enter the jungle and start climbing the mountain there is no road anymore. Our progress is slow and difficult. The guides use their machetes to cut a path through tangled vegetation and dig holes in the steep slopes making steps for us. The terrain is extremely harsh, at places seems impossible to pass.

 

Hiking

Ivo with one of the guides, hiking through the jungle

 

By the time we reach the cave, our guides tell us all about their struggles against the Colombian palm-oil company which, since over a decade now, is exploiting and polluting their land. The vast plantations of palm trees we have seen on our way, the smoke of the palm-oil treatment plant, the channels dumping chemical waste in the lake, are all killing the trees, poisoning the water, and bringing disease to their children. They have been robbed of their ancestral land by a corporate giant and are now fighting to get it back.

 

Road through the plantation

Road through the plantation

 

By the time we come back from the cave, we have become friends. The kind of friends who look out for each other and can count on each other. We could count on them for protection against the village crooks and the company people who saw us taking pictures and filming around the palm-oil treatment plant; they could count on us to tell their story of struggle against injustice.

 

Taking a break, sharing stories

Taking a break, sharing stories

 

We get to the cave’s entrance after about three hours of extreme hiking through the jungle. It is a small hole in the grey rocks leading down. The three guys stop at the edge of the hole to say a muffled prayer in Q’eqchi before going in. We follow. It is a place they rarely visit, they say, a sacred site for prayers and rituals; for secrets and secret knowledge. We are the first white people to ever enter this cave.

 

Saying a prayer in front of the cave entrance

Saying a prayer in front of the cave entrance

 

They lead us into a narrow dark corridor, humid and cool. We get to a chamber. The light of a small flashlight illuminates scattered objects on the floor: yellow bones, human skulls, lower jaws with crooked teeth. Some are calcified to the cave’s walls; others lay loose on the ground. It is a Tomba Maya, they explain, a Mayan burial ground. The skeletons must be hundreds of years old, they say, from the times before the Conquista.

 

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

 

Being in the presence of ancient Mayan remains is something both strange and beautiful. In the dark, my mind begins to wander. The cave with its breath of a carnivorous flower becomes a temple; I become a ghost from a faraway land.

“I am honored and deeply grateful, I whisper, to be here with you: men with machetes, bones with souls, mountains with secrets.”

 

Mayan remains inside the cave

Mayan remains inside the cave

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Fiesta, Piñata, Pollo, Cerveza. Celebrating Guatemala’s Independence Day in Mario’s Marina

 

Not only the local community of Rio Dulce celebrated Independence Day. Everywhere in the marinas the gringo cruisers took part in organised games and fiestas.

The celebrations of Guatemala’s 192 years of Independence from the Spanish Crown in Mario’s Marina started early in the morning on September 15 with a volleyball tournament. Six five-person teams showed up and played for two hours.

 

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The team of Los Invencibles won, of course. Ivo played with the winning team, of course.

Los Invencibles

Los Invencibles

 

Next were games for kids that included throwing water balloons and raw eggs at each other, pinning the tail of the quetzal bird, wet sponge competition and of course, a piñata.

 

Maya is beating the candy out of the pinata

Maya is beating the candy out of the pinata

 

Last, but not least, there was the chicken lottery. Someone brought a frightened chicken and placed it on top of a large cardboard with squares and numbers on it. The participants marked their names on a square of their choice paying 10 quetzales for a square. Then we waited for the chicken to poop on a square and thus determine who would win the lottery. But the chicken was not at all in the mood for pooping. It was so freaked out, it remained petrified and constipated in the middle of the cardboard surrounded by a crowd of people who wouldn’t stop bothering him. Someone tried to lure him with rice, another one gave him a relaxing massage, but nothing worked. Twice the chicken darted out and breached the circle of people absolutely unexpectedly running so fast it took skill to catch him and bring him back. Overall, it was painful to watch. I am sure that the chicken would sue its torturers if he was a gringo chicken with animal rights and had a lawyer, but he wasn’t… At the end the chicken was released his honor intact. He never pooped in public and on demand.

 

The chicken

The chicken

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Waters with a Taste of Mountains.

„First the earth was created, the mountains and the valleys. The waterways were divided, their branches coursing among the mountains. Thus the waters were divided, revealing the great mountains. For thus was the creation of the earth, created then by Heart of Sky and Heart of Earth, as they are called. They were the first to conceive it.“

-Popol Vuh

River and Mountains

River and Mountains

 

Very gently, like a thief entering a sleeping house, the fairy Morgana slides through the gates of the mountain: the mouth of Rio Dulce. It is the entrance to another world. Rocky shores (temples without roofs) overgrown with dark trees. Dark trees (sorcerers with sleeping birds and snakes in the hair) stretching thin fingers down, down to the green waters of the river. Green waters of the river (messenger of the tallest mountain and forgotten places) carrying aromas and the petrified reflections of ancient gods.

 

The Entrance of Rio Dulce

The Entrance of Rio Dulce

 

Nothing happens. Like in a vacuum. Like in a dream. Rocky shores, dark trees, green waters of the river-serpent. Only forest butterflies, men of maize in cayucos carved from tree trunks fishing with nets made out of Mayan secrets, and our alien boat sailing through the mountains perturb the slumber of this enchanted world.

Nothing happens for three days and three nights. We remain anchored near Cayo Quemado, a few mile before the town of Rio Dulce, unable to continue, slowly letting Guatemala soak in our bones through our skins, through our eyes, ears, and mouths.

Our mornings are populated by crystal drizzle, the smell of small fires, and the cry of a black forest bird.

A silent cayuco sneaks next to our boat. A mother with three children older than time are selling tamales. She made them this morning over the fire, with her hands and her magic. She put a chicken bone for a skeleton in the middle of corn-rolls and wrapped them, like you would wrap a newborn baby, in palm leafs. Over the fire, under her spell. They taste of palm leafs, smoke and flesh.

 

Quiche woman with baby selling Tamales from her canoe

Quiche woman with baby selling Tamales from her canoe

 

Our afternoons move slowly in the heat of the summer and even stop for an hour or go backwards. Time here is not the same.

On the second day we meet the river people. Half human half fish they live in the river from the waist down and in the forest from the waist up. They have small wooden houses built on the river banks. Their canoes glide like snakes on the surface of the waters. They have no other roads but the rivers. Their enemies are the invisible river crabs.

 

River People's House

River People’s House

 

Our evenings are purple with white dots. Purple like the mountain. The white dots are river lilies and egrets returning to sleep in the trees.

 

River Lilies

River Lilies

 

Our nights are filled with the distant songs of frogs and cicadas, and the melancholic cries of the river manatees.

 

Sunset over Rio Dulce

Sunset over Rio Dulce

 

Daily prompt 

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Livingston, Home of The Garifuna People of Guatemala.

 „Como se cuenta en las historias que ahora nadie cree -ni las abuelas ni los niños-, esta ciudad fue construida sobre ciudades enterradas en el centro de América. Para unir las piedras de sus muros la mezcla se amasó con leche. Para señalar su primera huella se enterraron envoltorios de tres dieces de plumas y tres dieces de cañutos de oro en polvo junto a la yerba-mala, atestigua un recio cronicón de linajes; en un palo podrido, saben otros, o bien bajo rimeros de leña o en la montaña de la que surgen fuentes.“

(As told in the stories that nobody believes now—neither grandmothers nor children—this city was built over buried cities in the center of America…)

– Guatemala, Leyendas de Guatemala, Miguel Ángel Asturias

Dawn

 

I am navigating in the dark. Time passes slowly when sailing with one knot and those final moments of night seam interminable. I know there is land in front of us just a few miles away, I can see it on the chart. The shores of Guatemala are so close I can scent the dry smell of earth and ancient mysteries. In the dark I can make out nothing more but the contours of mountains, a darker shade of black under the night sky. 

Two miles from land dawn begins to break with the speed of a flower blooming, and the most beautiful view gradually unfolds before my eyes. No more sea but mountain. Dark old cloud-eating mountain. The back of a sleeping monster in whose veins flows the blood of trees and forgotten animals. Green hills on the bank of a river, a home of herons, water lilies, and ghosts.

There, on the shores where the river meets the sea, under the lush chest of the mountain, men built a small town.

 

Livingston

 

Livingston , Guatemala. Hotel and docks.

Livingston , Guatemala. Hotel and docks.

 

Before heading up river to Rio Dulce, we spend a couple of days here dealing with customs and immigration, a lengthy but smooth process, and take advantage of our free time to explore the town. 

Public Laundry, Livingston Gatemala

Public Laundry, Livingston Gatemala

Livingston is a busy fishermen village where people and goods arrive solely by boat, as there is no land roads leading in and out of town.

Residential area in Livingston

Residential area in Livingston

Fishing boats and lanchas stop on the main docks to fuel, bring supplies, or pick up passengers for Rio Dulce or Puerto Barrios every few minutes.

Fishing boat at anchor

Fishing boat at anchor

As we walk up the main street where small negocios offer fresh fruits and vegetables, pan de coco, tortillas, and pretty much everything you need, we notice a bizarre mixture of people.

A young Queqchíe mother with daughter, Livingston , Guatemala

A young Queqchíe mother with daughter, Livingston , Guatemala

 

 

Ladinos with cowboy hats and checkered shirts are walking slowly down the street, indigenous Queqchíes and Quiché women with long black braids, bright-colored laced shirts and long pleated traditional skirts are sitting on the side of the road surrounded by a bunch of small kids. But what make Livingston a truly unique place within Guatemala is its Garifuna community, black Caribbean men and women with dreadlocks and Jamaican hats who make up the majority of the local population. 

 

A Garifuna girl, Livingston Guatemala

A Garifuna girl, Livingston Guatemala

 

Los Garifuna

 

In Livingston we met the „black indigenous people“ of Central America. Their identity was formed, in the 17-th and 18-th century, in the midst of destructive experiences, exploitation, and displacement. Their story begun with a shipwreck.

In 1635 a slave ship loaded with African men and women destined for the plantations of the colonies in the New World wrecked near the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. The survivors found refuge on the island among a community of Carib Indians who had escaped the colonization in South America and lived free of European oppression and exploitation on the island. The two peoples’, traditions, music, and spirituality blended giving birth to a new ethnic identity: the Garifuna people. 

Polo Martines, a friend

Polo Martines, a friend

Later in the 17th century, French settlers joined the island community in a peaceful coexistence. But when English colonists came and started appropriating land, war started between the British and the Garifunas supported by the French. In 1796 the massive British troops won the war and exiled the Garifunas to the Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. There, the Garifunas established new communities and fishing villages which spread to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. 

Garifuna child, Livingston, Guatemala

Garifuna child, Livingston, Guatemala

Today, Livingston is home of the largest Garifuna community in Guatemala, with population of 14,000. Here we met Polo Martinez. He takes us for a tour around the Garifuna part of the village. Extremely bright and knowledgeable person, Polo introduces us to their history and culture, music, language, and traditions. In exchange for the tour he asks for a bag of rice and some used books, in English.

Polo, leading us around the Garifuna neighborhood.

Polo is leading us around the Garifuna neighborhood.

The Garifuna people of Livingston are with no exception multilingual. They speak, along with English and Spanish, their own Garifuna language, a mixture of Arawakan, Carib, Spanish, English, and French. What is most fascinating about this language is the division of its vocabulary: women use different concepts and words than men. 

An old  Garifuna woman in her house, Livingston, Guatemala

An old Garifuna woman in her house, Livingston, Guatemala

Another friend we met on the docks while waiting for wind, Liverio Gamboa, tells us more about the local community and its struggles, mixing English and Spanish in a most innocent way. He is a curious-looking individual: black skin, white beard, long dark dreadlocks rolled under a red hat and blue eyes.

Liverio Gamboa, a friend

Liverio Gamboa, a friend

„How come blue eyes?“, I ask him.

„That’s the problem, he smiles, I told you. Who knows where these eyes came from…“

As the afternoon wind picks up and we are ready to sail up river we say good-by to Polo and Liverio. They will be there if we return.

„And remember, Liverio adds, somos el único pueblo que no ha vio combate. Aquí la gente muere de vejez.“

Mira with a Garifuna kid. Picture taken by another kid

Mira with a Garifuna kid. Picture taken by another kid

 

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Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

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Isla Mujeres, The Island of Women, is a small stretch of land, once populated by Mayan goddesses. About 4 miles long and less than half a mile wide, it is the eastermost point just off the Yucatan peninsula in the Quinana Roo province, across from Cancun; here Mexico wakes up. The northern half of the island bordered by vast fine sand beaches, is the tourist area: hotels, colorful negocios, street vendors, bars and restaurants, on both sides of the busy main street, everywhere vacation people chilling, having fun. The southern half of the island is occupied by las colonias where the locals live tranquilos in small brick houses of all colors.

 

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We really love Isla Mujeres, its colors, people and laid back atmosphere. We explore the island, north and south, walk around the beaches and the east wall, shop in Cherdaui, a huge store in the residential area where we can find anything we need and even more things that we don’t need, including green sausages, freshly made pastries, and tons of ridiculously cheap tacos. We pretty much eat tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and sometimes for snacks in between meals) every day.

 

Pastries in Chedraui

Pastries in Chedraui

 

We spend a week anchored in front of the charming El Milagro Marina using their dinghy dock with 24 hour security and internet for free. This is one of the best marinas we have seen so far, with excellent facilities and friendly staff. But the anchorage holding is very poor, it’s covered with sea-grass, and we drag our oversized Rocna anchor three times during some very strong squalls. Good thing that pretty much all boats drag together in the same direction during the squalls, like a synchronized dance, so we don’t bump into each other.

 

El Milagro Marina, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

El Milagro Marina, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

One day, we take the kayak to check out the floating plastic island not far from the anchorage. The artist, Richart Sowa, who, using recycled plastic bottles, built the small island and a two-story house where he resides, did it as an ecologiacal project hoping to demonstrate that garbage can be transformed and reused without harming the environment. You can read more about Joysxee, the floating plastic eco island here.

 

Eco Island, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Eco Island, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

 

We also check out Poc-na Hostel with Steve, Julie, and Mike, very cool young travellers we first met in Key West, then in Cuba, and now here, in Isla Mujeres. (Check out Mike’s blog here.) This is probably the coolest hostel in Mexico! There is cheap drinks, live music, and a beach party almost every night in the hostel’s backyard and the crowd is, of course, bare-foot, bearded backpackers from all around the world.

After a week, it is time to move on. We didn’t plan to stay so long in Mexico at all, we were on our way to a protected anchorage in Guatemala where many boaters spend the hurricane season. So we never even cleared immigration and customs, officially we’ve never been to Mexico.

 

More photos from Isla Mujeres

 

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El Perro Azul

El Perro Azul

 

 

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Traveling in Cuba. Viñales

 

 Cruisers traveling in Cuba

 

We came to Cuba by boat and that made it very difficult and expensive exploring the country by land because of the many restrictions on boaters and the high marina and transportation costs.

 

In Cuba, it is forbidden to just drop anchor anywhere you like, leave the boat and go to the mainland. (One more reason why Cuba is unique in the world of cruising.) On the north coast, you can drop anchor only near some of the many tourist-populated cayos and resorts, but you can then only visit the cayos, by law you cannot set foot on the mainland and explore the nearest village. Plus, there must be at least one adult on board at all times if you are anchored out, you cannot leave the boat unattended. The concern, I guess, is that a bunch of not very patriotic Cubanos might grab the opportunity (and the boat) and sail off into the sunset (or rather into the Gulf Stream and north).

 

If you want to explore the interior of the country, your only option is to leave the boat at one of the marinas, which are not many in Cuba, pay 20 dollars per day for a 40-feet boat ( $0.50 per foot per day), and find transportation to where you want to go. Here is the tricky part: transportation. From Havana to all main cities,  Santiago, Trinidad, Camagüey, Holguín, etc., you can get an air-conditioned tourists-only bus for about $100 per person one direction. Or you can rent a car (maybe air-conditioned if you are lucky) with or without a driver, between $90 and $120 per day. You can try to move around by cheap local bus, which is actually an old truck and people pile up in the open-air trailer under a canvass. We wouldn’t mind doing this, to us it sounds like fun, but it would take days to get anywhere, and we would still have to pay for the marina, $20 per day, so it is not worth it. Same problem with hitch-hiking…

 

We really wanted to visit Trinidad, a spectacular UNESCO heritage mountain village with spectacular colonial architecture in the south, but we calculated that for our family of four it would cost us over a thousand dollars to leave the boat for a few days in Hemingway marina, get on the tourist bus and pay for hotel or a casa particular in Trinidad for a couple of nights. So we didn’t visit it this time, we might sail there some other day.

 

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

A photo journal.

The only place we visited in the country’s interior was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province, less than two hundred kilometers west of Havana, thanks to Harley and April who we met at Marina Hemingway: it was their idea.

 

Harley and April aboard El Karma

Harley and April aboard El Karma

 

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway … stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway ... stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

Cooling off the car

 

For two and a half hours we look out the car windows. The countryside is charming: fresh green mountains, plains, little neat villages. None of the madness of the big city.

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Viñales is a small model-village in the mountains, a national monument since 1978 and a UNESCO heritage site since 1999. It is a main touristic destination, and so we were not very pleased to find here crowds of visitors, buses arriving every half an hour.

Main street and church in Viñales

 

The main attraction in Viñales are the two caves where runaway salves,  Cimarróns, lived in the 1800s. After entering in the first cave, we decided not to enter in the second… There is an entrance fee of $5 per person, the cave is in fact a few meter long corridor complete with fake snakes and frogs and a small restaurant at the entrance. Even if the cave is not big and impressive, its history is a fascinating one. The fact that this cave was the home for runaway slaves in the 1800-s was the most thrilling for me.

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A bunch of street artists ambush the cave exit and perform a  Cimarrón dance for inevitable tips.

 

Performance in the cave

Performance in the cave

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave's houses in Vinales Valley

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave’s houses in Vinales Valley

 

The caves are located in Palenque near Viñales, in a deep green valley surrounded by tall granite mountains and thick vegetation. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

 

Looking up

Looking up

We get a bunch of very cheap and very sweet bananas from a local farmer on our way back in Viñales.

Bananas 24 for $1

Bananas 24 for $1

 

Back in Viñales, we hide from a torrential tropical mountain rain, enjoying a glass of cold beer on the terrace of a small restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of beer: Bukanero and Cristal. We like Cristal a lot better, but they didn’t have Cristal and served us Bukanero instead…

 

Una cervesa por favor

Una cerveza por favor

As we are sitting in the restaurant enjoying our cold beers, a car pushed by three people passes down the road. Poor people, having car problems in the rain. Oh, wait a minute, this is our car! Our driver, Erie, a very timid always smiling guy, was supposed to wait for us at some corner, but I guess he had a bad day with that car…

 

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

We managed to get back to the marina without anymore car problems on the way back, listening to old 80-s disco hits and enjoying, once more, the unspoiled Cuban countryside.

House near Palenque

House near Palenque

 

The history of the Caribbean runaway slave, el Cimarron, is a fascinating one. 

 

As the sugar production (sweet gold) was booming in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the 1700-s, black young women and men, African princes and princesses, were piled up on ships and brought to the islands to work the sugar cane plantations. The slaves lasted for about a year in unimaginable conditions, and so more ships with „fresh meat“ were arriving weekly. For the slaves, the only hope was to escape. But escaping was not easy and most of the times the runaways were caught and brought back to be killed in public as an example, or died from dehydration and exhaustion in the unforgiving tropical wilderness of the island. But some succeeded, some made it to the mountains, to the caves, to freedom. They formed small communities, away from the cities and the plantations, life as close to nature as one can only imagine. Nature was mother, doctor, protector. The caves were home. The Cimarróns were free, multiplying, organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution, a black avalanche descended from the mountains in 1791 upon Le Cap and Port-au-Prince in the then French colony of Saint Domingue. Sugar fields burned with black smoke for weeks, heads of planters and their entire families rolled on the streets, boats, this time loaded with white refugees fled to Cuba and America.

In Cuba, the emancipation took longer, freedom for all didn’t come until 1886. The history repeated itself.

I have read two remarkable books (in Spanish) which I would recommend to everyone interested in the subject of the runaway Caribbean slave.

One is  Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. Historia de un Cimarrón. It is the detailed and personal testimony of Esteban Montejo as told by himself in 1966, when he was 103 years old, and as such it is also a valuable historical document.

The other is Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea, La isla bajo el mar, a beautifully written historical novel full of romance and intrigues, giving a poetic account of the Haitian revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti). 

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La Habana

La Habana, Cuba

 

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La Habana of our nostalgic imagination was a coastal vibrant city of music and love, with ancient colonial architecture, great cathedrals and plazas, museums and galleries, colorful facades with balconies looking over narrow streets where old Soviet cars and even older American ones roar like lions in the perpetual heat of the summer. Where grey-haired men sit in the coolness of parks under dark ever-green trees in small groups improving the art of chess or dominoes, children run around barefoot, and beautiful Cubanas in dresses of all colors like muñeca, illuminate the entire town.

Church in Habana Vieja

Church in Habana Vieja

 

For a few days we roam the streets, somnambulists enveloped by sounds and smells we could not have predicted, comparing our imaginary Havana with the one before us, trying to look all around us and remember.

La Habana is schizophrenical, a city of multiple personalities; getting to know her can be heartbreaking.

An old car parked in Havana

An old car parked in Havana

La Catedral de San Cristobal,  radiant in the heat of the summer, la Plaza de Armas,  occupied by book vendors under shady trees, el Capitolio, a huge poster of Fidel Castro hugging Hugo Chavez in the front, el Museo de la Revolucion,  rooms filled with black and white photographs and pages of the history of the Cuban Revolution, el Malecón, couples sitting with their backs to the city, kissing, el Museo de Bellas Artes, an interminable maze of rooms and corridors filled with Cuban paintings of all periods, la Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo, a surprisingly good exhibit of contemporary art, la Casa del Che, an empty ghostly mausoleum opposite the statue of Cristo, el Morro, heavy on the other side of the Havana harbor, indifferent to the rest of the city, forever facing the unpredictable seas. All points of interest are exactly as we expected: impressive in size and reputation. We visit them one by one like the tour guide suggests, blending in the steady flow of pink tourists with photo cameras, backpacks, sunglasses, and hats.

 

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

 

 But the atmosphere of this city, like a storm cloud, is heavy and charged with anxiety. What impresses us most are not the many points of interest turned touristic attractions but the aftermath-like ruins of the residential buildings. Everywhere, behind colorful facades hide dark humid interiors; the old apartment buildings are in a sad state of neglect and decay.

An apartment building entrance in Havana

An apartment building entrance in Havana

The care-free Habaneros of our imagination have been forever left to linger in the 1970s and the 1980s, succeeded by hungry sad people who have lost everything: hope, faith, and dignity.

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

We keep going. We only stop for beers, some ice cream, a small pizza and mango juice, and we are ready for the next place, dodging the inevitable taxi drivers offering rides and guided tours. We also start noticing strange things, some don’t make sense at all.

A goat in downtown Havana

A goat in downtown Havana

A beautiful woman with a bright dress comes out of a dark  suspicious apartment entrance where electrical cables form a dense tangled maize on the wall. Used baby diapers have been washed and are now hanging to dry on a balcony. A 15-year-old boy is sitting on the sidewalk flattening beer cans with a hummer, his friends pass by holding wooden planks and invite him to play baseball; he can’t, has to work. The little bakery is almost empty, so is the fruit and vegetables bodegas. The big news they announce on TV is that eggs will be distributed in the entire country tomorrow. An old woman explains that the upper floor of the building she lives in crumbled and fell over her up-stairs neighbors last year killing the father. A teenage girl is kissing a very old foreigner in the park. All refrigerators you see through open doors of dark apartments are the same made-in-China model. Things don’t make sense to us but we hope that at least they make sense to the locals. But the locals tell us they don’t really. „Hay que inventar.“, we hear them sigh often. It means, they have to resort to their imagination, they have to „invent“ ways to survive. On the positive side of it, this makes them very resourceful and versatile people.

 

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

Thus, we discover La Habana full of past glory and sad misery, getting to know her bit by bit. She reminds us of the Cubana posing all day on the corner of the Plaza de la Catedral in her traditional cotton dress  and a huge unlit cigar in the mouth, like Mickey Mouse or Spider Man in Disney World, waiting for tourists to take her picture for a peso. La Habana charms us, invites us, surprises us, shocks us. We are left with a wrong feeling inside. Having a relaxed authentic experience here today is almost impossible. We wish we could have visited La Habana in the 1980s.

La Cubana

La Cubana

 

More Pictures from Havana

 

Cuban girls

Cuban girls

 

A dog in the window

A dog in the window

 

Load of bananas

Load of bananas

 

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

 

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

 

A Cuban girl

A Cuban girl

 

A yellow facade

A yellow facade

 

El perro chino. Walking

El perro chino. Walking

 

Fish

Fish

 

 

Pregnant woman on a balcony

Pregnant woman on a balcony

 

Plaza

Plaza

 

Contemporary Art Gallery

Contemporary Art Gallery

 

Blue facade

Blue facade

 

Blue girls

Blue girls

 

Old cars

Old cars

 

Dog

Dog

 

Window

Window

 

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

 

Two boys

Two boys

 

Plaza Vieja

Plaza Vieja

 

Stairs and electrical box

Stairs and electrical box

 

El Morro from the ocean

El Morro from the ocean

 

 

Man behind peacock

Man behind peacock

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