Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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MIAMI BEACH, Jan. 5, 2000 -- Shopping for a spa vacation in Jamaica just got interactive. SpaView.com has launched a dynamic Web site providing comprehensive information on fine hotel and resort spa vacations in Jamaica and around the world. SpaView users can research and book spa vacations, take virtual tours of individual spa properties and receive the most detailed, up-to-date information on spa services, equipment and staff available. Relax at one of SpaView’s Jamaica spa resorts after taking a virtual tour at home. Member spa resorts to choose from include, Ciboney Ocho Rios, Half Moon Club, Sunset Beach Resort, Swept Away Negril and coming soon, Grand Lido Negril, Grand Lido Sans Souci and Grand Lido Braco. SpaView’s Jamaica home page can be reached directly through www.SpaJamaica.com or by going to the Caribbean region on www.SpaView.com. Each member hotel or resort spa has its own 25-page section that includes a virtual tour of the facility and staff, spa menus, programs, packages and specials. Spa-goers are able to compare properties across Jamaica, book their personal spa vacation and receive instant confirmation in real time. SpaView.com also offers a community-based, online wellness environment. Its engaging content serves to educate (and demystify) the "spa experience." This is complemented by an online forum for sharing spa reviews and a spa store where a variety of spa products may be purchased, including gift certificates, books, CD’s and videos. SpaView member properties have all received the "SALUDSeal of Approval," qualifying the facility as having institutional quality equipment, certified professional staff, and a full range of spa & fitness services. "What sets SpaView.com apart from the competition are the high standards we require of our member properties; the level of information that we provide to our consumers, and the innovative multi-media applications we offer on the web site, including 360° interactive photography of the spa facility, and audio-video clips of the spa staff ," said Melchior Baltazar, SpaView's Managing Director. " Our goal is to become the preeminent internet source for booking spa vacations online, and to establish an interactive spa community where spa-goers have a creative forum for discussing their experiences online," Mr. Baltazar added. Mr. Baltazar, founder and managing director of SALUD, the parent company of SpaView.com, is an international lawyer and former US Navy SEAL. He is a sought-after spa speaker and fitness consultant. SALUD is a full service hotel and resort spa & fitness company, providing consulting services in the design, construction, operation, marketing and FF&E procurement of fine hotel and resort spas. For more information about SpaView.com please visit www.spaview.com or call Patty O’Rourke at (305) 538-4278 or via email at email@example.com.
>From the Monastery of La Popa, located on the highest hill in the city, I gazed down on Cartagena de Indias - once the bastion of the Spanish Main. It was an ideal spot from which to enjoy a beautiful panorama of this ancient city, encompassing a near 500 years of history. The massive well-preserved walls of the old town brought to mind silver and gold-filled galleons, pirates and endless battles. It was not difficult for my thoughts to stray back to the past - the time when this Spanish-citadel port was known as 'Queen of the Indies'. One of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, it was founded on what was once known as the island as Calmarí - later changed to Cartagena in 1533 by the Conquistador Don Pedro de Heredia. Its fine defensible harbour and the stories of the gold in the hinterland made it a perfect spot for the treasure-seeking adventurers from Spain. The tales of the Chibcha Indians rolling their chiefs, once a year, in gold dust had given birth to the legend of El Dorado - the mythical land of gold and jewels. An exaggerated fable, it drew men in endless streams to this first bastion of the Conquistador in the South American continent. In the subsequent years, even though the Spaniards did not find all the gold and precious stones they were seeking, there was enough to fulfill much of their dreams. They robbed the Indians of their treasures and Cartagena became the storehouse of almost all the plundered South American gold, silver and jewels. There were so many galleons carrying these treasures back to Spain that the route they followed through the Caribbean became known as the 'Spanish Main'. In a short time, the city grew into a wealthy center and became the leading Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. As the years went by, the town and the treasure ships became tempting targets for English and French pirates. The gold and silver plundered by the Spanish from the Indians became the prey of other Europeans. Cartagena was besieged by pirates many times and had to continually fight for its life. It was burned, devastated, pillaged and rebuilt on an ongoing basis. The most successful of these attacks was in 1586 when it was sacked by Francis Drake and forced to pay a huge ransom. In response to these assaults, the Spanish built an intricate system of defense consisting of 18 km (11 mi) massive ramparts - 11 km (7 mi) still standing - and a chain of outer forts. These saved the city from the fiercest attack of all - that mounted in 1741 by Edward Vernon. He came with a huge British fleet, commanding a naval expedition which outnumbered the Spanish defenders seven to one. So sure was Vernon of victory that a medal was struck commemorating the expected triumph. However, he was forced by the Spanish commander, Blas de Lezo, who became a national hero, to beat an ignominious retreat. This and the countless lesser battles against pirate fleets gave Cartagena the label 'Heroic City' - a name it still retains. In 1811, this once proud Spanish citadel was one of the first cities in South America to declare independence. It was reconquered by the Spaniards but eventually freed in 1819 by Simón Bolivar, the independence hero of five South American countries. In the ensuing years, it developed into a flourishing trading center. Today, it has expanded beyond its ancient ramparts and has become an important industrial and tourist-resort with a population of some 900,000. The old city, declared by the United Nations a 'World Heritage' site, has been admirably restored. It remains locked behind its formidable walls, a monument to an illustrious past and a living museum of 16th and 17th centuries architecture - the most perfectly preserved colonial city in the Americas. Travelers have described it as one of the most fascinating and charming Moorish-Andalusian type towns in the Americas. Tree-shaded plazas and a maze of narrow- winding streets, lined with a magnificent array of mansions with exquisite balconies, makes it a gem of Spanish colonial construction. As in the past, this citadel of the Conquistadors continues to live a colourful existence. For visitors, the best way to explore the old city is to enter by the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Gate), the main entrance through the walls, and make one's way to Plaza de Bolívar - the place where the town begins to show its historic face. To one side rises the Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of the Inquisition), a feared structure for over two centuries and now houses the Colonial Museum; on the other side of the Plaza stands the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia (the Gold and Archaeological Museum), with a fine display of pre- Columbian goldwork and pottery; and a few feet away towers the 16th century Cathedral, noted for its huge hand-carved and gold-plated altar. A few minute's walk away are the church-monastery of Convento de San Pedro Claver, whose tranquillity and beauty attracts thousands of tourists and Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the oldest church in the city. All around these venerable structures are hundreds of beautifully restored historic mansions with their attractive balconies - almost all housing museums, restaurants and shops, saturated with the aura of Cartagena's past. To truly explore the old city's important sites and savor the atmosphere of the old city, one must walk. On the other hand, to get an all- round picture of the stark beauty of the ramparts, a horse and carriage should be hired in the evening to drive around the illuminated walls. The trip usually leaves a deep impression on visitors. When one tires of history, there is Manga Island with its classic and Moorish type regal homes, and Bocagrande, the tourist section built on a long peninsula which extends from the old city. Here, where most visitors stay, luxurious plush hotels, exclusive restaurants, nightclubs, discos and beaches have replaced the world of pirates and conquistadors. To a good number of sun-seeking travelers, surrounded by these amenities of the 20th century, old Cartagena is of little interest. Yet, their vacation would be much more rewarding if they combine the sun and sea with the exploration of this 16th century walled city, legendary for its history
Trip 7/97 Books read before traveling to Cuba were Insight Guide and Lonely Planet Survival Guide, Cuba. This was our 2nd trip to Cuba, the 1st being a 3 day trip from Jamaica. Rosa and I have been to over 70 countries, we are well worn, rough and tumble travelers. We have confirmed airline reservations to return to Cuba with our two teenage daughters in April 2000. Friday, July 4th, 1997 We depart at 11:55 PM Thursday night. Our Mexicana flight from San Francisco, California to Guadalajara, then Mexico City arrives in Cancun on time. We rent a car for $27.00 and drive to Puerto Morelos and spend the afternoon snorkeling and reading. At 4 PM we rent a room at the Hotel Liberdad for $10 to shower and take a nap before our flight. This hotel is south of town and is comprised of two story bungalows with hammock style, yet flat beds. It is run by Americans and instead of the normal signs that state chairs are reserved for guests, Hotel Liberdad posts signs welcoming everyone to enjoy the chairs and decks. Our AeroCaribe flight to Havana departs at 7:30 PM. We arrive in Havana only a few minutes late. Our big box is the very last to come out to the carousel. There is now only a short line at customs, we almost make it through when the woman in charge asks us to go open the big box. After inspecting the 10 pack of Dial soap with great interest (I can only guess that my duct tape job makes it look like plastic explosives), they notice the obvious, that we have a complete computer system, including 15" monitor, in there. Well, it is soon also obvious that they want us to pay customs on it. They want us to pay $200. We argue that a 386 computer has a value of $20.00. They show us a Cuban Government list that states computers are worth between $450. to 1,500. We balk at this and express incredulity. I show them the address on the box that it is going to InfoMed but that makes no difference to them. We have no letter from InfoMed and no receipt for the purchase of this computer showing its value. This all takes more than an hour and we end up paying $20.00 to bring the computer in to Cuba. We are actually relieved that they have not noticed the glaring HP printer box on the cart nor have they searched our remaining bags to find the other two computers we have with us. We take a regular taxis to Juan Carlos' house arriving about midnight. He gives us his room and we say goodnight. He has a plain small room with overhead fan, extra floor stand fan and a large window at the headboard. His room is freshly painted which we later learn is very unusual in Cuba. We go straight to sleep. Saturday, July 5th We are up early to the sound of street noise, people walking to work and kids laughing on their way somewhere. Juan Carlos fixes us breakfast, serving us by ourselves while he eats in the kitchen. We head out to rent a car. Just a while ago the government has recalled all cars given to employees who had then loaned them to other persons. Many of these cars had become private taxis. Penalties for private rentals had either gone up or were to be enforced. This has put a strain on the rental car agencies. We can only find a Diahatsu Jeep at $75/day. We tour Havana Viejo taking a long circular walk starting at Plaza des Armas, to Plaza Catedral, past La Bodeguida del Medio to Plaza Cenrtral with the Hotel Englaterra and Plaza Hotel. We went to the top floor of the Plaza Hotel (rooms were $90 when we asked at the desk) for a good view of the Bacardi Building behind the hotel. Then down Avenida de la Misiones Street to the Museo el Revolution. On the second floor is an exhibit about the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron) and life sized action figures of Che and Castro coming through the jungle. Out back in a glass box is Granma, a authentic replica, the boat that Che and Castro and 80 others sailed on from Mexico to start the evolution in 1957. We then drive east along the Malecon under the Rio Almendares in a tunnel into Miramar where many embassies and expensive residences are located. We went to a paladar, Excelente, for a good fish and chicken meal. Main courses were $5.00 and $6.00. Drinks were $1.00 for club soda or beer. We were told we could buy lobster on the black market and went to find the right person. We stopped at a grocery store and Juan Carlos instructs us to stay back out of sight. He came back and we walked to the car, got our money ready and drove ahead to pick up the jintero who could find the lobster. He had us stop 1/2 block from the place we were going looked over his shoulder and got out. It was beginning to feel like a drug deal. We bought 18 small frozen lobsters for $12.00. We still had not changed money into pesos and wanted to have to stop tipping people for watching our car using $1.00 bills, Juan Carlos had said that this was excessive and created bad will, that we had so much money. It was explained that we could change money on the black market at 22 pesos per 1 US dollar or at a government office at 23 pesos per 1 US dollar. This did not make sense and we never found out if it was true. Some places accept pesos from Cubans and only dollars from tourists. Sunday July 6th First thing in the morning we head to the large market on Gomez Maximo toward town. JC says that there are many markets like this one but this is the largest. Rice is 5 pesos a pound Pork is 23 or 25 pesos/pound We see mangos, bananas, oranges, guavas, large avocados, garlic, potatoes, yam type tubers, peanuts, poultry, pork and ham. We buy a bunch of items for JC family. I have a mango drink mixed in a blender for 5 pesos, I come back for 3 more. It appears to be made of ripe mango, thick cream and some sugar. The woman's stand is just as you pass through a hall from the vegetables to the meat area. She speaks English and I say that tomorrow I will be back with a large bottle. She explains that tomorrow is Monday and the market is always closed. We are psssst at out front by money changers. We change $60 (at 22 pesos/$1 US) with 3 different guys because one cannot change all of it, they even pool their money to take care of the last $20. Later I see them psssting at every 6th Cuban, I wonder what else is up, they must be offering dollars to Cubans. Next we drive out of town to the Parque Lenin. In the park JUAN CARLOS gets a little lost, we realize he is not used to the flexibility of driving by car. He has always been on busses and although he certainly knows his way around we see that sometimes we have to back-track to get on the right road when cutting across town on a new route. The park, which besides having a large area of small rides and picnic areas, is also used for children to see and practice trades when they are in 6th grade. We have only one goal, that is to get photos of the statue of Lenin. It is a blinding white marble bust caved into a large stone some 35 feet tall. No one is there but us and we hurry with the photos to escape the sun. >From Parque Lenin we drive just a little further out of town to the CubaExpo. It is set on a large piece of land with a few km 4 lane driveway back to it from the road. It is kind of a large 4-H fair of exhibits from all of the provinces. It appears that only a few of the many large buildings are open, but we do not wander far as it takes us only a short while to see that we have seen enough. We do stay to have lunch of fish and rice. We must pay in USD of course, even for JC as he is at our table, but the meal is only $4.20 and the beer US 30 cents. JC tells us that the unlabeled brown bottle beer which is a bit yeasty, like home-made beer, is the beer that the state give 3 cases to for each person's 15th birthday and each wedding. Actually they give a coupon for the beer and he says you may have your first child or already be 16 by the time the beer is available. Back home for nap, boy do we seem to need naps here and we conk out for over an hour. I want to see the Playas del Este and we round up 3 of the 4 kids, Tony age 6 (motor mouth), Samira, age 11 (always smiling and helping) Ynette, age 15 (more quiet due to her age). The beaches are crowded and some food is available at bamboo stands on the beach, everyone pays with US$. Monday, July 7th Leaving Havana we head out of town east past the Playas del Este. There are, of course, hundreds of people hitching rides. We give rides to several groups of two. Almost all are animated, eager to talk, about the busses or their next job, cousins and uncles in the USA. We find no one bitter about the current conditions but no one is happy about it either. Our first stop is in Matanzas. It is on the Via Blanca, 42 km west of Varadero, 98 km east of Havana. We park on the main square and inquire at El Vino if they have food, no only finger food (small appetizers) they say. The waitress leads us down the street 30m to a hotel, we would have missed it altogether if she had not shown us the entry. Food will be served in 10 or 15 minutes so we head outside for a walk around the square. A few feet outside the door we are approached by a teenager asking what we want. He talks us into going to a palardar on the far west end of town deep in a residential area. Once there at a table in what was the living room we realize we should ask how much it will cost before we eat. The waitress does not know, and she asks the owner and returns with the figure of $10 each, not including drinks. Now this is more than we paid in Miramar, la Habana. We say it is too much, wait a while and leave, they never propose a second price. They clearly have something to learn about retail sales. We had seen 2 Cubans finish their meal when we sat down, we were sure they didn't pay$10 for a meal. Our guide who has been paid with a pack of gum and bar of soap, is still waiting for us when we come out. He directs us back to the center of town to a small, mostly takeout restaurant with only a few parlor seats. Its sign says, Comidas and Meriendas. It is on Calle 83, 29010, 1/2 block from La Vina. Its really a take out place and is 1/2 story up off the street, we ate in the alcove looking over the narrow street. It is just a few blocks from where he had originally found us. We order rice and beans and chicken. We sit on 2 of the 4 chairs after having commandeered the only coffee table in the place. The chicken is better than good, it is delicious, the rice and beans are exactly as they have been 6 or 8 times before, dry and bland. In front of the second restaurant we acquire a 2nd assistant, he will guard and wash the windows of our car. Not being able to convey that we already have a guide that will not leave us, he stays and he start cleaning the windows. A while later I go out to get my camera and give him 30 cents of convertible money but he asks for food. When we finish eating I ask for a cardboard box that I have seen them sending food out with and give a full box. He thanks me profusely and runs off, apparently in a hurry to eat. In Veradero we find a modern hotel (built in 1953) on the sea for $39.00. The name is Hotel Herradura, on Avenida del Playa between 35 and 36, tele. (535) 6-3703 and 3303. The new high-rise fancy places are at the tip of the peninsula several km from the town area. We had earlier checked the price at the Hotel de las Americas and it was $165/night, sin comida (without meals), he made this very clear repeating it twice. We find that the rooms apartment style. We share an entrance, living room and kitchen. Then there are two master bedroom suites and AC is in the bedroom only. I looked at the 17" TV long enough to see that it had many US shows on and was clear as a bell. The brochure says 79 rooms in apartments. But all rooms face the sea and it is actually interesting to be forced to meet some other visitors. A Crystal beer at the bar was $1.60 but only US .75 cents in the adjacent dollar grocery store downstairs. At night we go into Sale, the small town just before the peninsula but the only restaurant we find is the franchised El Rapido, we may like local, cheap food but the greasy Cuban version of MacDonalds is not our choice. On our way back we pick up more hikers and one shows us where Cubans eat. It is on 64th just off of Avenida PrimeroThe waitress starts off with, "Let me explain something, we only have pork and rice and beans, nothing else." For us that is fine. We order a beer and get the brown bottle with no label. We had been charged US 30 cents for this 'brand' at ExpoCuba. Here it was a$1.00 and the total meal was $18.00, the last $4.00 appeared to be an included tip. Next door was a club with music which also looked like a local place. It looked intriguing. Tuesday, July 8th We drive back 10 or 15 km west toward Havana to the $2.00 toll both where the coast turns to rocks to try a little snorkeling. I see the usual assortment of fish but the water is murky from churned seaweed and decide it is not worth more time. Back in our apartment our Portuguese neighbors tell us of a hotel near Cienfuegos. We hope to try it. I hope to cover a lot of miles today and we are successful due to good roads and few cars. We follow a route from Veradero to Cardenzaas, Maximo Gomez, Colon, Santa Clara, Cabarien, Moron and then to Cayo Coco, 450 km total for the day. We pick up more hikers than I can remember, each one telling us about the countryside and answering our questions. We hear of doctors and engineers working as receptionists in hotels and several young people are studying English to get jobs in new hotels. I find no one who actually can carry on a conversation in English. One old man says, "Why, I've never been picked up in this class of car, Ava Maria!" He tells us about all the crops and where to stop for sugar cane water and offers to buy us one. We have a couple of them but we pay for him after several polite refusals. Santa Clara looks quite pleasant in its central square. The guide books are right, there are many kids hustling to be your guide. The narrow streets make us bless the embargo, we wonder how awful the traffic would be if gas was available at local prices. There are thousands of bikes and on and near the square we see many bike parking garages in the front rooms of peoples homes. As we travel we find small dollar stores even sometimes in fairly small towns, sometimes along the road in the middle of nowhere, they always have beer and cigarettes but out of cities they do not have colas or bottled water. Caya Coco seems to be playing a Cuban joke on the tourists. There are no roads signs at all and there is no one too ask directions. We stumble up a long road to cave converted into a nightclub, it is at the end of the road so we must turn back and retrace our steps. We had been told that there was one hotel that cost only $30 and the others were $85 to $95. We actually find the place located in the center of the island (not along the coast), it is La Sitio de Guira. It is getting dark and the mosquitoes are on the rampage. Our room is in a cabin, it turns out to be the only cabin available. We learn that we are in a museum of how typical Cuban farmers live. The cabin has a 13' x 22' entry living room, 2 - 13' x 22' bedrooms on either side of this, a 13' x 18' dining room and a 12' x 18' kitchen behind this plus a standard bathroom off of the dining room. In other words all of the rooms were huge (1 meter = 3'). Electricity is run throughout, the lights are lanterns with 60 watt bulbs in them. Everything is lacquered on the inside, there are wood chairs with leather seats in the dining and bedrooms and wood solid wood rocking chairs and a beautiful coffee table in the kitchen. It is a beautiful place, many American family don't have this nice of a house. Wednesday, July 9th We wake up with the cocks crowing even before light, I go out to quiet the cocks by scaring them but I run into a peacock almost as tall as I am and nearly die of fright myself. Eventually they stop and we drift back to sleep. Early in the morning busses arrive to drop off workers, there must be 20 workers here. We take the tour of the charcoal manufacturing area, primarily Spaniards had lived there until 1963 making charcoal. We saw a cock fighting pit even though it is illegal in Cuba. Tio said the authorities look the other way on this issue. we have breakfast of fresh squeezed mango juice and the ever present ham and cheese sandwiches. Then we head to the Italian hotel on Caya Guiremo. It is exclusively Italian and is an all-inclusive @ $165.00 for a double. We drive on west to Villa XX and see that it is as nice and bigger and find out it is $150.00 for a double. This is not what the guide books said and we reluctantly head back east. Passing the airport I think they might have a map on the wall. We pull in and look around, several people jump up to help us and a man draws us a map of both islands and makes 4 or 5 phone calls to find out prices and availability, The last hotel is Tryp Hotel and it is $220/double. They suggest we spend the day at Playa Pilar at the west end of the island and then spend the night at Hotel Moron on the mainland. He calls to confirm that the hotel has room and finds out it is $38/night for a double (w/AC). We ask if there is food and a shower at Playa Pilar and he makes another call. There is food but no shower. It is 26 km back to Playa Pilar. We find a nice beach with trees and a thatched roof restaurant. We spend the afternoon on the beach and snorkel just around the corner further west. On our way back I decide to stop back in at El Sitio de Guire again. We start taking Polaroid shots of the employees and a crowd gathers, we are instant hit with these folks. We end up taking two employees into Moron so they do not have to take the slow Guagua (pronounced wawa) back to town. We laugh and talk all the way back to town some 70 km. They are delighted as I am speeding along at over 100 km/hr and we have saved them 2 hours on the guagua. They show us a paladar in town (Paladar La Rueda) which is 1/2 block, dead center in front of the train station on the one way running away from the station. It was a good meal of pork, rice and beans and a cucumber salad ($5.00 each, drinks $1.00 each. Maria, one of the hitch hikers had invited us for coffee after our dinner and we go to her house. Maria used to work at the Hotel Moron which is just across the street, a 5 minute walk. It is a training hotel and she worked there the required two years before graduating to a tourist hotel on Caya Coco. Both her cousin and her cousin's husband work at tourist hotels. The Hotel Moron is quite nice, large rooms several restaurants and a bar at the large pool with surrounding deck. It has cable TV and AC. Thursday, July 10th We go into town to mail our post cards, we have been told 3 different prices for cards .35, .50 and .65 pesos. We go with the safe one and pay .65 pesos (± US 3 cents). Catty corner from the post office we have pizza for 3 pesos and then a little further on we have another pizza for 5 pesos. Heading out of town for Ciego de Avila we start picking up hitch hikers. I slow down somewhat to cross railroad tracks but a motorcycle cop is coming toward me, he flags me over for not having stopped. He is not a tourist police and we are told that he cannot give me a ticket and he does not spend much time to tell me to stop at all the crossings. Our last two hikers before entering Trinidad suggest that we stay in a private home in La Boca on the sea. We agree and take them the extra 7 km to La Boca, which appears to be the Cuban beach area. The woman there offers us a home in Trinidad for $15/ night. I see on the map that there are two hotels farther out on the Peninsula de Ancon and we check them out. We opt for the Hotel Costa Sol for $33/night for a room in one of the main buildings. Cabins are $10 more but appear to be worth it as they are larger, on the waterfront and have glass window (meaning the bugs don't get in). At the end of the road is the larger, 'fancier' Hotel Ancon, for $58/night, but it only has sandy beaches while Hotel Costa Sol has area of rocks that are better for snorkeling. Cubans can come out to the beaches between the hotels but not to the hotels themselves. While checking the hotels we have picked up two more women hikers in beach clothes and while Rosa checks the price we park under the overhang of Costa Sol. Quickly a guard comes to the rear window and taps on it to tell the girls they are not allowed there. I jump out of the car and over the hood say there is no problem here and we will be going when we finish our business at the reception. I don't know if it my bad Spanish, my tone of voice or the touchy subject matter but he retreats. I find this to be an ugly blotch on Cuba's "all people are equal" policy. I see my favorite billboard on this route, "200 million children in the world go to sleep in the streets every night but none of them is Cuban" We snorkel at the west end of the hotel grounds and then pack up our gear and drive a few km to a Cuban beach. About 6 PM we head into Trinidad, taking two hotel workers with us who had not dared to show us they were hiking. As always they say that our car is much better than the wawa and they show us the Paladar Rosa up above the Plaza Mayor. We drop off the women and drive down the cobblestone streets to the Plaza Mayor. It is late, everything is closed and all of the tourists have departed, that leaves just us for all the jinteros and we are soon mobbed with our car surrounded. We decide to drive to Parque Cespedes on Calle Jose Marti and buy drinks at the store next to the Hotel La Ronda. It is very quiet and we are only approached by a very drunk, slightly crazy man that I need to get a bit forceful to make leave. A teenager comes over and also moves the old man along. Then the teenager wants to assist us and we accept by asking him to show us how to get to the Palador Rosa. His route seems long and we realize that he is taking us on a small tour of the town, past the music hall (no roof), the three crosses and finally to Rosa's. While waiting for our food we sit out on the curb across from a 1950 Studebacker that is up on blocks. Two girls about 7 years old are playing around it and I make playful threatening moves toward them as I go to the car for my camera. They keep an eye on me but not well enough, as I am able to sneak up to the other side of the car and get a photo of them through the car. Then getting the Polaroid, we get them to pose for us and give them the photo. We suggest they have one for each of them and they both run off apparently to try to talk their mothers into joining them, neither wants to do so. We get one small brother (4 years old) to join them and an older sister to refuse. We take another photo and then the older sister wants one also. I am out of film with the Polaroid so I use my 35 mm and she approaches with her hand out, we tell her its too late and she pouts away. I order the seafood plate with lobster, shrimp and fish for $10.00. It comes over-flowing with food and I am glad I was extravagant. Rosa has the fish for $6.00 . We see that there is a waiting line so we move to the living room for coffee, he appreciates this and gives us coffee for free. The children keep running in and out, speaking with us. One of the little girls asks her mother if she can get something. She comes back with a knitted purse she has made and offers it to us for sale. She is starting early on the capitalist trail. We drive back to the hotel through a lightening storm, with the first torrential downpours hitting just as we pull into our hotel. It is a dramatic ending to a very pleasant day. Friday, July 11th >From our hikers we learn that some people work 16 hours straight with two days on and two days off and some work 24 hours straight and then have 2 days off. Since most people live a ways from the hotels and transportation is slow and limited, we can see that this saves on gas and time. We see coconut trees but never see a coconut for sale. We are told they are used at the homes for sweets. The sea is calm and we go snorkeling again. As we approach the beach a guard approaches and starts speaking quickly, "I want to explain something! Yesterday when you came to the hotel if I had not said something to the two girls I would have lost my job. Do not take offense, it is just that way. I have a daughter of my own and even she cannot come here" I was taken aback, it appeared that the guard had been thinking about this and was eager to have the chance to explain. I was now embarrassed and we gave him some shampoo and soap for his daughter. It is only a few km to Cienfuegos so we have an easy day of driving. We check into the Hotel Faro Luna, it is 16 km east of Cienfeugos. It has no beach but the snorkeling looks good and proves to be so. Cienfeugos has a bay with two large peninsulas encircling it. There are three hotels out this way, the other two, Rancho Luna ($54 and Hotel Pasa Caballo ($24) are both much bigger resorts with larger pools and patios. Hotel Pasa Caballo is inland and is not a tourist hotel but apparently anyone can stay there as we were not turned away when we asked for the price. We drive all the way to the point of the peninsula where there is a bar/restaurant, Casa Pescador. There is a tour bus there with Cubans on vacation from Havana. They are dancing and having a good time, we watch a storm roll in across the bay. It is spectacular. Just as we get back to Faro Luna the lights go out and food cannot be served, everyone else sits around waiting but Rosa and I head back to the palador that we had seen next to Casa Pescadero. We find it boarded up in the storm so we go to Hotel Pasa Caballo. We ask at the door if they are serving food and are escorted to a completely dark and deserted dining room. But food is available. While we are waiting for our order I wonder off and find 60 Cubans eating in another restaurant and 30 people waiting outside. I go back to our dark dining room and we ask if we can sit in the other room with all the people. He hesitates because they are paying with pesos, we say we will pay with dollars but do not want to sit alone. We are escorted to the main dining room and only cause a small stir. A man comes with a musical keyboard and to a background of percussion he slowly taps a few notes. Later when our waiter is sitting with us I ask when did the musician die. He nearly falls over laughing and agrees that the musician is lame.In pouring rain we go back to Faro Luna. Saturday, July 12 We are sad to leave Hotel Faro Luna and wish we had another day to explore the area and rest. We drive to Cienfeugos and then take the 'back' way into Playa Giron. Finally a few pot holes appear in the roads we take on this route, until now they have been uniformly smooth. Once again picking up hitch hikers keeps us from getting lost. We arrive in Playa Giron just before the museum closes. I give the June 22, 1997 front section of USA Today to the person at the desk. It has a two page article about JFK's involvement in the Bay of Pigs affair. They are polite but uninterested. The museum is small and we are soon across the street in a dollar store buying soda water. As we come out we see the museum fellow running across the street to us. He has now had time to look at the article and wants to get my name for their special display that they put up every two months. Rosa regrets me giving my name, for fear of retribution but I welcome it. We have lunch at the Playa Giron Hotel. Rosa asks a man on the beach where we can buy coconuts and he says you don't buy them you pick them and proceeds to climb a tree and gives us 4 coconuts and even gets them open buy using a concrete corner of the retaining wall. We all have knowing smiles at this situation. We head west and north to the central freeway. Once on the 6 lane road we see people standing in the center divide with their hands up and out. We see that they are offering the motorists fruit and vegetables. The old lady with us says "Don't say a word, I will negotiate the best prices." We find that oranges are 10 for 1 peso (about 4.5 cents), I have to use restraint not to fill the truck at that price just for the fun of stopping and chatting with the vendors. Sunday, July 13 We wake up early to go to the Malecon to see the sun rise. But we are locked inside the house until someone gets up. We take the kids to the market, but they are not interested in much. As we get back in the car they decide we should go to see the forts on the other side of the river (el Moro and La Cabana) and we are off. This is not what Rosa and I had planned but we see the kids are eager to go. At the entrance kiosk there is some argument as to how much we have to pay. Two of the kids that are 12 and over say they are 11 to save us 5 pesos each. They also try to convince the ticket seller that Rosa and I are Cuban so we can get in for the local price. We end up at a fort and I sit down, not wanting to walk up the hill. Later Rosa says that this fort was not included in our entry fee and when they got to the gate the kids argued in Spanish over the entry fee again. She just chuckled to herself and said nothing. To save Melan and Toni 3 hours on the guagua, we drive over to pick them up in a neighborhood several km away. While we are still waiting at the curb the local police come by and ask for identification from J-C, Melan and her husband. I go to show mine and am waved away. It starts to take a long time and I get out my Polaroid to take pictures of the kids. In a weak moment I spin around and 'inadvertently' take a photo of the police car. The officer immediately sees the flash and jumps out of the car, demanding the film. I give him the shot but he does not know what that is as it has not yet developed. He wants the rest of the film and reaches for the camera to take it away. Rosa in a flash snatches it out of his hand and shouts in Spanish, "Oh no, you are not taking this". Everyone is a little stunned at her reaction and now things have escalated a bit. We are asked to leave the car and sit in the house. The officers call for their superior using their radio. This only takes about 10 minutes and everything is fine. Later learn that the second officer has extended the apologies of the Cuban government to us. Actually I am very embarrassed by my stupidity, I could have caused our friends lots of trouble. Then to the car rental agency in Hotel National where I have to argue to only pay $50 for the extra 1/2 day Monday, July 13th We do not sleep much in a house with no alarm clocks and we are fully up at 4 AM. At the airport we keep finding more little packets of Cuban pesos. We only changed $80.00 and in a week had a hard time spending $40.00. This was even with buying lots of food for Juan Carlos' family. We did buy many things in pesos but at 22 pesos/US $1 it is hard to spend it all on 3 peso pizzas and 1 peso drinks. We give what we have left to Juan Carlos, he accepts it sheepishly as though he were being paid. The airport is packed and the lines are slow. The Cuban Custom official engages us in conversation, which we find strange until it dawns on us that he is really just making sure we are who we say we are. On the plane, Rosa and I look at each other and make promise to return with our daughters one day.
My new husband and I visited this gorgeous island from Jan. 19-26, 2000 and did the all-inclusive deal. We went through Apple Vacations and paid $2,345 for everything. Our travel agent didn't have much to offer so I logged onto debbiesdominicantravel.com for an extensive review of hotels and things to do and see. When we arrived at the airport we were greeted by two beautiful women and had our picture taken (when you go home, be sure to look for your photo, it cost $10u.s.)The airport was just how the reviews described it, rustic like. It was a 35 min. ride to the hotel. This hotel has three in one, BAVARO, PUNTA CANA and the DOMINICANA. We were the only people on the bus to stay at the BAVARO so we went in a golf cart from the Dominicana. Upon arrival we were amazed at how gorgeous the lobby area was. Check in was quick, friendly and easy. We were given a rum drink and told where everything was. We didn't have an oceanview room and opted not to request one b/c we didn't need a hassle and we weren't planning on spending a lot of time in the room anyway. The room was clean, marble bathroom, king size bed, fresh flowers, rum, t.v and small porch, couches and table. The food was good. My husband is a very picky eater and he got along just fine. It took a few days to get used to the greasy food but we had the Pepto. People did dress up for dinner and the hostess is strict about wearing shorts. My husband wore docker type pants with a short sleeve button down shirt and I wore a long sundress with straps and felt comfortable, I was glad I brought a light jacket. The buffet was different every night. Everything was marked in different languages. They always seemed to have some American entrees. I really got into the cheese and crackers table. Stayed away from unpeelable fruit and went with my instincts. I ate a lot of bread and crackers to absorb all the grease. We never seemed to have an illness from the food, maybe the rum, but that was our fault! They did have a Mexican theme night but I stayed away based on the reviews just in case. The coffee is very strong, the sugar very sweet and the sweet and low is brown not white. I had an expresso and was up all night. A lot of fish on Friday night. Lobster was at both beach restaurants and was great. A lot of pizzas, very greasy. Breakfast was awesome! We tried to sit by the lagoon so we could watch the flamingos and ducks. We made reservations at the a la carte resturante through GUEST SERVICES in the lobby. Had no problem making them b/c I took reviews advice and planned ahead. This was a more high class resturante. My husband had steak and I had Lobster. He was leary of the meat b/c he didn't like it at the beach , but was really happy with it here. He ate cheeseburgers at the beach and was happy with those. If he was happy with the food, I think anybody would be. I tried everything that I felt comfortable with and I was fine. Your body does make an adjustment. We did eat the buffet at the DOMINICANA and we weren't happy with it at all. The atmosphere wasn't as friendly and relaxed as the BAVARO. We ate at the Italian resturante based on the reviews and it was nice. I wish we would have made reservations at the resturante near the lobby , the menu looked great and so did the atmosphere, I think it was French. The grounds of the BAVARO were absolutely fascinating. We stayed in cabana type units while the PUNTA CANA and DOMINICANA had one large unit for everyone, didn't seem very secluded like we were. The BAVARO had more class to it and was considered more of a 5 star than the other two in our opinion. We were glad we spent the extra money to stay here especially with all the concern over food, cleanliness and water. We had our Hepatitis A shots also. There was a lagoon set up around the lobby and resturantes and there were Flamingos, ducks and peacocks. Very beautiful flowers. shrubs, trees and walkways. The staff was always manicuring the grounds. Roosters woke us up every morning around 7:30. At first it seemed like we were the only Americans but we heard some and we were really glad we did. A lot of Germans, French and South Americans. I knew some Spanish and it really came in handy. I highly recommend a phrase book and some knowledge of the language, we needed it. Some of the wonderful staff spoke some English but some didn't. Memorize your room number b/c you will need to sign allot b/c they keep track of the drinks, knowing your number in Spanish will be appreciated. The beach was awesome! Powder like sand and crystal clear water. we did some snorkeling, my husband did the most and dove for shells and coral. The first day we got up early and had no problem getting a lounge chair in the shade. The next day we didn't get there until 10;00 and had to lay on the sand, I was glad I brought a beach blanket. There weren't palm trees for shade, but there was a thatched roof umbrella type thing. Bring A LOT of sunblock. We brought 2 bottles of SPF15 and 1 SPF30, went through the 15, I used the 30 for the sensitive spots and by the last day we were down to our last bottle of only SPF4. The lotion was expensive in the shops. A lot of topless bathing and thongs. I went and felt fine, it's not everyday you have the opportunity to feel totally free without getting arrested. We went deep sea fishing through BLUE SKY which was near the dive shop. It cost $70u.s to fish and $50u.s. to observe. I observed, but I could have fished if I was able to. I wasn't into the fishing trip b/c I was VERY much seasick and just wanted to get on land. The sea was VERY, VERY rough and it was becoming too much for everyone. I was very grateful to have at least had the experience despite my sickness. My husband caught a Wahoo marlin and got it 10 ft to the boat and it got away. He wasn't happy especially b/c he though the price was to high. We went on the BAVARO RUNNERS jeep safari and it was amazing. We highly recommend this to everyone who wants to see the real Dominican Republic. We made reservations with the Apple rep near the tour section by the gift shop. It cost $75u.s each and can use your credit card. Make sure you save the receipt the rep gives you so you can give it to the pick up man. Be sure to bring candy, small toys, pens, paper, etc. so you can give then to the children in the villages and throw the candy from the jeep, the children loved this. They do run after the jeep yelling "money, money" and come out from their homes when they hear the jeep. This was heartaching for me to see the reality, but I did give them some pesos and candy. This was the best adventure we were on in our entire life. You definitely saw the real world out there in the jungles of the Dominican Republic. We went to a sugarcane plantation that was manned by Haitains, Maria's house to see how Dominicans really live and learned about the coco plant and bought some fresh coco and coffee beans, went to a small museum, a ranch for a safe, great lunch and horseback riding and finally to a secluded beach for a swim. This was worth the money if not more. Bring a lot of film and a video camera if you can b/c it will be hard to describe this experience to people back home. I did get 3 bug bites even though I had replant on, my husband didn't get any and mine don't itch but I'm still watching them. We packed a backpack of extra clothes, towel, swimsuit (wear it) baby wipes. I suggest you wear socks and tennis shoes. You will get dusty and wet but it's not overwhelming. Just like past reviews there wasn't much shopping. We bought 2 bottles of rum, a box a cigars, a wooden statue and murracas and the total eventually came to $120u.s. Most of the shopping was in the blue shacks at the end of the beach. The Iberostar runs the merchants off the beach. They are very pushy, you must bargain, bargain, bargain. Know how much you want to spend, use the gift shop as your guide and don't let them see how much money you have. We brought $600u.s with us and we were fine, a lot of our money was spent on tips and the tours. I kept my wedding ring turned around and never wore nice jewelry except at dinner , I left the wedding set in the hotel safe when we went outside the resort. I wanted to buy a woven multicolored belt but couldn't find one. We did a lot of tipping. At first it was difficult on deciding WHO to tip b/c one person would take your order, the other would bring your drinks and a third would bring your food. We tipped the one who took the time to serve us the best. This hotel was worth every penny and we really got our moneys worth. The staff was always working. One thing about this place in general, there is not much to do inside the resorts except breakfast, lunch, beach and nightly entertainment. A very good place to have a honeymoon or to get back to reality with your spouse. Based on a review, we took the opportunity to enjoy the secluded beach at night and took every advantage of this.There were kids activities and they all seemed to have a good time, but not a place for the kids in our opinion( we don't have any) The resort has everything pretty much on schedule as far as eating and entertainment. The shows were the only form of entertainment at night. They started at 10:00 and everyone usually headed down after dinner to get a nice seat. The show lasted until 11:00 and then you either went to bed, went to the disco or took a stroll on the beach. We did the disco thing twice, the first time we were to tired and had to get up for the fishing adventure. The last night we were there we took advantage of it and stayed until 3:00a.m. All Latin music played, a 4ft. man from the entertainment staff tried to teach me the merengue, it was a riot. A word of advice on trying to call the U.S., be sure to check with your calling card company before your leave. MCI doesn't work. I tried 8 different times and got different answers every time. I eventually got through with my local phone company's card. When the hotel operator connects you to the international operator (15pesos every connection) chances of you getting through collect without asking is sure to happen. Would we come back here again ? Yes, maybe not Punta Cana but would like to check out the North and South parts of the island. Would we stay at the Iberostar chain again? Definitely and we will when we go to Mexico, Spain and back to Dominican Republic. This chain is based in Spain and also has hotels in Cuba. We talked to some Americans on the Jeep Safari trip and they were staying at the CATOLINA and it didn't seem as classy as the Iberostar. I think everyone on the jeep was impressed by the guarded gate and wonderful front entrance. The woman said they had a roach problem in her room, we only had one problem and that was at breakfast and other than that everything was very clean. We highly recommend this hotel.
What can I say, there are too many US properties to visit without wasting your time going to the Dominican Republic. Jack Tar Village was nice but if you left the resort, you were in for a let down. It started with us arriving at 10:30 PM. We got our luggage and immediately the customs man told us to bring them to him. He felt them and then passed them off to one of the locals who took off with them. We had to tip him $5.00 for our bags and then he gave them to another local. All of this was intimidating for us to have just landed in a foreign country. Anyway $20.00 later we got our luggage. Oh did I mention that it costs $10.00 per person for a tourist tax to get into the country? Got to the resort, it was nice. In fact I really don't have too much bad to say about the resort. We were looking for relaxing and peaceful and it was both. However, we decided to take one of the tours. We wanted to see the Whales. The bus was to pick us up at 5:30 AM and we were to return at 5:30 PM. Well it was a day from hell. The roads are terrible and the bus would pass on blind curves. In fact we saw two really bad wrecks that day. There was breakfast included. It was disgusting! We stopped at a little restaurant on the way. If I had seen the restrooms first, I would not have been able to choke down what I did eat. After about 5 hours of being on the bus, we get on a boat to go look for whales. It seemed like only moments after we got on the boat, one of the crew can around asking for tips. I thought that was in really bad taste. All day long we were getting hounded for tips. It would take 5 pages to explain all the awful things that happened that day. We finally arrived aback to the resort at 8:30 PM. (Did I mention that on the boat with close to 100 people on it, there were only 7 life jackets? Just enough for the crew of 7 operating the boat. I guess there is no water patrol there!) The next day I went back to the Signature tour booth and told them of our day from hell. She explained that she had booked us through another company, it wasn't them. I told her I wanted my money back. After having to go back by the booth 4 times and her telling me she was trying to get something resolved I showed up on Thursday morning (while it was pouring down rain) and told her I was tired of spending my vacation at her booth. I told her to call who ever she needed to call to get my money back or I would stand at her booth the next 2 days of my vacation and tell all the people that came to her booth what a scam it was. She got on the phone and then told me she would be back in ten minutes with my money back. She did come back and give me my money back. Anyway I am trying to keep this short and there is not too much good I can say about the Dominican Republic. Do not waste your time or money going there. It is the one tropical place you can visit and be ready to go before your vacation is up.
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