Saturday, January 28, 2017

Puerto Morelos for fish and food

Puerto Morelos, Yucatan, Mexico
January 15 – 25 2017

Hola everyone

After five or six days with black flags on the beach indicating wind and currents strong enough to keep the fishing boats, snorkel and diving boats in port and almost no one in the water, except the kite surfers, who had a ball, the winds moderated and we were back snorkeling off the beach every day. We never did book a snorkel trip to the reef because we were having so much fun chasing the schools of fish very close to the shore.
Yoga on the rooftop with Melissa
The swimming, and walking the beach every day, combined with my three times a week Yoga class, meant that Ray and I could enjoy all the good restaurants in town without feeling guilty.

You heard it from me. Puerto Morelos is turning into a foodie town. We sampled several of the restaurants, both simple and more upscale and it is true. There is something for everyone’s taste. Go to Petita en la Playita for ceviche and seafood tacos at Carabelos, and at a tiny place on Niños Heroes. Carpe Diem, run by Italians, is the place to go for European cheeses, homemade pasta and sauce, and Paris quality croissants and pain au chocolate. Go to El Nicho and Layla’s for brunch, especially Layla’s on the weekend, to hear a good blues guitarist.
Blues at Brunch at Layla's
We finally made it to John Gray’s Kitchen for a special meal that truly deserves its high rating. Tonino’s Wine Bar and Restaurant, owned and run by Constanza, the daughter of our landlady, was hard to find, but worth the effort. It was down an alley, tucked away in an outdoor patio behind another restaurant. We arrived at Tonino’s on Tuesday, our last night in Puerto Morelos, to find that the restaurant was fully booked with people anticipating the weekly entertainment. Luckily, we got a table when early diners left before the entertainment began. We stayed to enjoy a great Blues and Soul singer, backed up by a guitarist, while we ate our well-prepared meal and glass of Chardonnay.
Tuesday at Tonino's
Yes, Puerto Morelos remains high on our list of the best beach towns in Mexico. Even three weeks wasn’t enough time.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Puerto Morelos on the Yucatan

Puerto Morelos on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Jan 4-14 2017

“Jeanne, look down here!” Ray called me as we started out from the shore with our snorkels and masks. A small ray, with faint spots, was lying quietly in the sea grasses. One moment later we were floating over the biggest Spotted Eagle Ray we have ever seen! And it isn’t running away! It seems to be turning around, watching us! That skinny tail must be almost a meter long. OK, as long as we do not provoke it, we can enjoy watching how it moves like a delicate winged creature through the water.

We had arrived from Havana, Cuba the previous afternoon and that was our first opportunity to go swimming. One of the reasons we like Puerto Morelos so much, besides the long stretch of white sand beach, is the ease at which we can enjoy the corals and tropical fish without having to go on an organized snorkel boat trip. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is just 500 M offshore, closer to the shore in Puerto Morelos than anywhere else along the Yucatan. In 1998 the area made a protected Reefs National Park. You cannot fish in the park and you are not permitted to swim out to the reef, but anyone who can swim 100 M can go from shore to find corals and schools of fish to keep you interested for hours. Yes there are barracudas hovering around the smaller fish, but if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.

We are not being visited by our children and grandchildren this year so we have rented a simple, one-bedroom apartment just a block from the beach. Christina, a former Argentinean woman, lives in a unit on the front of the house. She has expanded her home to include five studio or one-bedroom units, spread over two floors. Our unit, on the ground floor, has a kitchen and separate outdoor room in the former garage. The outdoor has comfortable wicker chairs and a table, plus a hot tub, which we don’t use. The units are reasonably priced and popular with American and Canadian tourists, several of whom return every year. Our host, Christina, has been great in responding to our problems, first by replacing a hose herself on our gas stove, and then buying a new mattress for our bed. We couldn't ask for better service.

We have stocked up with groceries at the large grocery store on the highway that runs along the Yucatan about 2 km from Puerto Morelos. There are small stores in town to supply our needs if run out of basics and there are a number of ever improving restaurants in town to sample. When we had problems with our gas stove the first day we went to for great shrimp tacos and sampled our favourite shrimp ceviche at La Petita en la Playita. After a recommendation from our Ottawa neighbours, Kevin and Linda, we skipped our usual fruit, granola and yogurt breakfast in favour of brunch at El Nicho. Our verdict, echoed by the crowd of locals and tourists who eat there each morning: El Nicho rivals our Ottawa favourite, Stoneface Dollys in Ottawa. We are back to our own home cooking again but we have a few more restaurants to sample before we leave.

The downside of Puerto Morelos is the high winds brought by El Norte (OK blame Canada!) after three days of perfect visibility for snorkeling. The snorkel boats, and Ray and I, are patiently waiting for the winds to die down before heading out to explore the corals again.

What are we doing in the meantime? We go for a walk on the streets, exploring both north and south of town, in the morning and walk the more than 2 km stretch of beach in the afternoon. I have also signed up for yoga three mornings per week. The popular classes are led by Melissa on the roof terrace of the small apartment complex, Abbey del Sol, a few blocks from our apartment. Melissa teaches a form of Hatha and Vinyasa Yoga, which is different from the Iyengar Yoga I have been learning in Ottawa, but I am adapting and enjoying the classes.

On one of our beach walks, we were pleased and surprised to be greeted by Carol and Lise, from St Jerome QC, whom we met 3 years ago at La Petite Prince and saw again 2 years ago when Erica and family were here. In the meantime, they bought a cottage near Mt Tremblant and didn’t come last year. We renewed our friendship over drinks one evening and we will meet them for dinner one evening, before they return to Canada next week.

Now if that El Norte wind will just drop down a bit more, we will be back circling over all those multi-coloured fish again.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Last Days in Havana

Jan 2-4 2017

To see photos of our last days in Havana, slick the following link
Last Days in Havana

Getting there is not always Half the Fun, especially if the shared taxi driver is unfamiliar with the streets of Trinidad.

We were picked up at our Casa in Trinidad shortly after 8 AM, anticipating another 10 minutes in town picking up two more passengers. That was optimistic.  After getting detailed directions to the next pickup location from Belkys, our Casa host, the driver went one half-block before asking a local for the same directions. The new directions were not satisfactory either. We spent the next half hour in the car stopping every block and circling streets before finally finding the house where the driver was supposed to pick up two passengers, only to see the prospective passengers get into another taxi and drive away. Either the dispatcher had double booked a taxi or the customers had called another taxi after the original one missed the expected arrival time. My vote is for the second reason.

The driver phoned his dispatcher and after 10 minutes, was given another address. Guess what? The driver continued getting lost getting to the new address where a young Swiss girl became the third passenger. We were not finished yet. A fourth passenger was needed to fill the car and of course the driver didn’t know where that house was either. We eventually found the address and picked up a waiting Japanese woman. After circling another blocks, we finally headed out of town, more than an hour later than we expected.

The highway to Havana is never crowded and we made good time, before stopping at a farm house next to the road to buy gasoline for the car. The farmer told the driver he had no gas to sell that day. I had visions of running out of fuel somewhere on the highway, but shortly, we turned off to visit another farmer who directed us to his neighbour next door who did have gas to sell. The driver extracted a large funnel from the truck and the farmer emptied the contents of a 10 litre plastic container into the gas tank, all the way smoking a cigarette. No strict safety measures here. The driver also filled his own spare plastic container with even more fuel and stored that in the trunk of the car.

We carried on to Havana. As we approached the city it became obvious the driver had never been there before. Luckily we had a map of town and after one inquiry from a local man, we were able to direct the driver to Hostal Peregrino. The Swiss girl, who had planned to go directly to the airport where her Swiss Air flight home was scheduled for 8 PM that night, had received a text message while driving to Havana, announcing the flight was delayed a full day, reason unknown. She got out of the taxi at the same time we did, intending to meet a friend who was in the city. That left the Japanese woman to get to her reservation in Vedado district, a few km from the center of town. We never found out how long it took the taxi driver to find his way there. We were just glad to finally get to our Hostal.  

We were warmly welcomed back to Hostal Peregrino by the staff, who showed us to the same room we had left almost two weeks before. After a warm shower and a rest, we spent the evening walking in Habana Vieja and enjoying a good, but overpriced dinner of lobster in a tasty tomato sauce and a bottle of good Italian wine.

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, along the sea wall

The next day was much more enjoyable. We had a long walk along the sea wall bordering Habana Vieja and had lunch in Casa del Queso La Marriage, the find of our visit in Havana. Cuban cheeses are generally bland, but new cheese varieties are being developed and have found a sales venue in this new restaurant. We shared a good salad and a cheese board of three different cheeses, plus a glass of white wine each, all for a bargain price. If you happen to be in Havana, look for the restaurant at the corner of Amagura and San Ignacio in Habana Vieja. You will not be disappointed.

That evening we returned to 5 esquinas, our favourite Italian restaurant for seafood dinners and a shared Caprese salad, all very good. Our last walk in the area brought us back to Meson de la Flota, in time to enjoy another flamenco performance, the perfect way to spend the last evening in Havana.

Welcoming the New Year in Trinidad

December 28 – January 2 2017

To see photos of Trinidad, click the following link

Who is this big dude, dressed in a ball cap and dark glasses, ready to go the beach? Oh, it is our dinner! I guess Piggy missed those big knives beside him.

It was New Years Eve and our Casa Particular hosts, Belkys and Juan Rafael, had invited Ray and I and two Latvian men, who were the other guests of the Casa, to a special dinner. New Years is a family time in Cuba and Belkys mother and their son was home from college in Sancti Spiritus. Belkys had set up a large buffet of salads and rice and Juan made sure we each had a beer to mark the occasion. The pig was carved and we helped ourselves to the juicy roast meat. That wasn’t all. Belkys had ordered a special cake for the occasion, decorated with “Felix Dia 2017”. We had to caution Belkys not to give us giant helpings of cake, but it was moist and delicious. It was a great start to our evening.

Ray and I headed out to see what was happening at the Plaza Mayor, just up the cobble stoned road from our house. As usual, tourists were clustered at the bottom of the broad, sweep of staircase leading up to the terrace where Salsa bands play every evening. The tourists were not ready for salsa dancing yet. They were taking advantage of the WiFi available from three bars across the street. Everybody had their smart phones in hand, busily reading emails and browse internet sites. There was another crowd of people sitting on the upper terrace already and a lineup waiting to pay the 1 CUC entrance to get close to the band.

We were headed for the Casa de la Trova, a few doors away. This is where the local bands come to play and locals come to dance to the music. There was one table left for us in the already packed room. One group, which included a saxophonist, was finishing their 9:00 PM set, and another group was ready to take their turn. It was obvious that all the locals know each other. This was a big night and the crème de la crème in Trinidad music circles was there. There were hugs and kisses for all the notables and drinks poured from their personal bottles of Rum or Vodka, sometimes watered down with soft drinks. The 10 PM group had the best dancers crowd the small dance area, applauding after each number. The locals certainly know how to dance and enjoy themselves.

We stayed for most of the 11 PM group before leaving to explore other bars. The lineup of people waiting to go up the broad stairway was growing longer. We heard music coming from around the corner. A band on the second floor balcony of La Nueva Era restaurant was encouraging a crowd watching from across the street to echo the chorus and dance along. Everyone was having a good time. We walked on until we reached a third bar, Ruinas Segarte, where we heard decidedly different music. We went in and shared a bench and table with a local family.  An accomplished violinist was performing a jazzed up number. He was good. Accompanied by other musicians with a keyboard and drums, he even managed a Celtic melody that rivaled Nathalie McMaster, not your usual salsa or son sound. We stayed to hear a vocalist sing Felix Navidad, the only Spanish number that includes a toast to New Years as well. At the stroke of midnight everyone got up to wish friends and strangers, including Ray and me, the best for the New Year. It was a friendly group.

The New Year had begun and it was time for us to go back to our house. We passed through the biggest crowd we had ever seen in Mexico. The stairs and the area at the base of the stairs were packed with people. Amazingly, the mood was definitely happy and friendly with not even a hint of drunken behaviour. Everyone was just glad to share in the holiday spirit.

What did we do the rest of our time in Trinidad? After getting frustrated with the speed of WiFi connections, that is when we even got a connection, we finally decided we could wait until we got to Mexico to do more than send a text or two. Instead, we took walks to some parts of town we had not discovered in previous visits. There was an advertisement for a concert in Santa Ana Plaza that included several members of the famous Buena Vista Social Club. The concert was held every Saturday evening at 10 PM, the next being New Years Eve. It sounded interesting, especially as the Buena Vista Social Club has officially retired. The Plaza, across the street from the ruins of Santa Ana Church, was in the northeastern part of Trinidad in a former 19th C Spanish prison. I was informed that reservations could not be made, so we eventually abandoned the idea of attending but instead walked up the hill from the church to Motel Las Cuevas. Our Lonely Planet did not speak highly of the Government run hotel or its food, but the view from its hilltop local was worth the visit.

Lonely Planet also suggested a late day visit to Barrio de Los Tres Cruces, an area heading downhill from the Plaza Mayor. The cobbled streets of Trinidad are being eroded everywhere by the increase in car, truck and bus traffic and the Barrio was in somewhat worse shape. The saving grace were the colourful small houses lining the streets and seeing the horses return for the evening after ferrying tourists and produce around for the day.

If you want to see where the local residents live in any Cuban town, you go to the produce market, which in Trinidad is south of Parque Cespedes. The homes are not as well renovated and grand as perhaps other parts of town but the people are friendly and there is always a pickup soccer game to watch and people sitting on their doorsteps gossiping with their neighbours.

Even if we were trying to avoid the large portions served in many restaurants in Cuba, we couldn’t pass up returning to favourite privately run restaurants in Trinidad and finding new favourites. Ananda Sol was a perfect choice for our 51th Anniversary dinner on December 30. The setting in a beautifully restored and furnished Colonial house more than matches the well prepared food. There is even a good trio to entertain diners. No wonder there are lineups to get in each night.

We found the perfect lunch spot, La Redacción restaurant, in the former home of a 19th C newspaper, “El Liberal”. We had  a bowl of soup two days and shared good appetizers another day. The restaurant featured the paintings and sculptures of a Sancti Spiritus artist, Madrigal. The fantasy themes fascinated us, enough to almost consider taking one back to Canada. 

After discovering that a past favourite, Paladar Estela, where we dined in the garden, no longer served meals, we discovered El Dorado. The well priced, tasty meals were served in another restored colonial house. We ate well in Trinidad.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Beach on the Bay of Pigs

The Beach on the Bay of Pigs
 December 21 – 28 2016

To see photos of Batey Caletón, Playa Larga on Google photos, click the following
see Batey Caleton Beach photos

Was Hostal Yaimé y Manolito, in Batey Caletón, a suburb of Playa Larga on Bahía des Cochinos (the Bay of Pigs), going to be as good as our memories from two years ago? Yes it was. Yes, our Casa Particular accommodation was still simple. Our room, one of three in the house, had a double bed and a single bed, a mini-fridge, a small bedside table, a stand with hangers for our clothes, AC, a noisy fan we didn’t use and a compact bathroom with a hot water shower. Yet it was the welcome of the owners and their staff that made us feel right at home. It was only a moment before we were remembered from our visit two years ago. Yaimé and Manolito, the owners, were alerted and came to give us hugs and a welcoming kiss. That warm feeling stayed with us for the entire week of our return visit.

A big draw for Ray and me was the long, sandy beach right in front of our house. We were there for the Christmas holiday week, bringing more tourists from Europe, Canada and a few Americans than our previous visit, but it was never crowded. The water was clear, warm and inviting, perfect for our daily swims. We had brought our snorkels and mask with us to find the corals growing on rocks about 100 M offshore. We entertained ourselves floating above the corals admiring the tropical fish and searching for the best fan or brain corals. Walks on the beach after swimming and through the small village in every direction in the morning kept us occupied the rest of the day.

The one activity we repeated this year was a visit to Punta Perdiz and Cuevas de los Peces, two excellent snorkeling and diving spots farther along the Bay of pigs towards Playa Girón. The same retired Quebec school bus came along the beach road in Batey Caletón and Playa Larga at 9 AM picking up tourists as it did two years ago. After stopping at the one Dive Shop in the area to pay 10 CUC each for the excursion, rent equipment if you didn’t have your own, and arrange for optional scuba diving. 

From the dive shop it was about 20 minutes to Punta Perdiz (lost Point). The shore is rocky but a ladder or simple steps get you into an aquarium of tropical fish amongst the corals. The drop off of the reef is just 50 M from shore, waiting for divers to explore the deep and find a scuppered US landing craft left over from the Bay of Pigs landing in 1961. After 1-1/2 hours at Punta Perdiz, we were back on the school bus to drive to Cuevas de los Peces (Fishtank Cave), about 10 minutes back towards Playa Larga. About 100 M into the woods across from the beach is a 70 M deep flooded cenote, a limestone cave with a collapsed roof. The water fresh water is suitable for swimming but it is so dark the fish are barely visible. Divers need a light to explore the deep. Ray and I prefer the ocean with more tropical fish and corals to explore. It is a great way to spend the day and suitable for children wearing life jackets, as well.

Two years ago we took guided birding trips into the Ciénaga (swamp) de Zapata to see the water fowl and the Zapata forest to find zunzunitos, the tiny bee hummingbird. We didn’t repeat the visit this year but a British couple staying at our house visited and reported that they were thrilled with the variety of birds and wildlife they encountered. 

A French-Spanish family we befriended, who live in the 13th Arrondisement in Paris, stopped on their taxi ride from Havana to visit Criadero des Cocodrillos, a crocodile breeding center, about 20 km north of Playa Larga. They arrived in time for feeding hour, which especially impressed their young 7 and 10 year old children.

We took all our meals at the Hostal because the cook Maira, was still there, practising her magic on the limited selection of ingredients available to Cubans. Tables under a long shady palm shelter were the perfect place to have a drink and enjoy our meals. Hostal Yaimé y Manolito is not an official Paladar, the Cuban private restaurant, so it is not set up officially to receive guests, other than those of us staying at the hostal, unless enough food is available to feed extras that day. I don’t think that Playa Larga or Batey Caletón even has an official Paladar yet. That meant, that given the reputation of the good food, tables shaded from the sun, good outdoor bar and comfortable beach chairs facing the sea, our house was a magnet for other tourists to share the facilities with us and hope to eat one of Maira’s good meals.

Breakfast and dinner is priced separately from the room, but is still a bargain. Breakfast is a plate of fruit, buns, sliced meats and cheese, eggs any way you like, fresh juice and coffee or tea. Each dinner came with a homemade soup, vegetable salad, rice and a fruit salad. The dinner portions were so large we convinced Maira to give us half portions, and still we had more than enough to eat. We had our choice of fish, shrimps, chicken and other meat. Christmas Eve brought the arrival of a freshly killed pig, which was butchered on site and offered for dinner that night and for the extended family of Yaimé and Manolito who gathered to celebrate Christmas. The roast pork was enjoyed by everyone.

Entertainment by a Cuban band is always welcome. Our house was host to a six piece group at dinner time about every two days. We were more than happy to listen to their Latin rhythms and contribute some CUC to support their efforts.

We left for Trinidad on December 28 after more hugs and vows to come again. Our transport was a shared taxi, a big 1950s Oldsmobile station wagon, the precursor to the family van with three rows of seats seating all eight tourists and the driver. Luggage went in the small trunk and strapped securely on top. Four of the passengers got out in Cienfuego, about half-way into the three hour drive to Trinidad, so we remaining four had lots of room to spread out.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Havana, Forever Fascinating

December 13-21 2016

To see photos of Havana in a Google Album,
click the following
Link to Havana photos

What? You are staying in Havana for eight nights? Don’t you ever get bored with the city? The answer is no. There is always something new to explore and familiar places to revisit.

We first visited Havana five years ago, the first stop on a seven week exploration of Cuba. We returned two years ago for five weeks and this year we are revisiting our favourite places for three weeks. People ask us what has changed in the meantime. There are many more Casa Particulares, the Cuban version of Bed and Breakfast, and Palardares, the private restaurants are more numerous. There are more tourists around, and more of them are Americans, happy to take advantage of the first direct flights from the US or the few Cruise ships that stop in Havana. We are pleased to see the Americans venturing out to the Casa Particulares and getting to know the Cubans.

What remains the same is the lack of money to renovate more of the beautiful, old Colonial buildings. There are several projects advertising coming renovations to large buildings for luxury hotels, but most projects seem to be stalled. What you don’t see are the interior renovations of individual apartments, especially those where the owners want to offer rooms to tourists. Internet access and especially WiFi is still scarce. A few of the larger hotels in Havana have WiFi zones, available for a price. We were advised to look for a large number of people clustered in a park or on a street. That is a sign of a WiFi zone. Tourist category bus service has not caught up with the increase in tourists resulting in more work for taxi drivers, both in town and especially from town to town. Garbage pickup remains a problem, judging by the piles of plastic bags and number of filled to capacity large green bins on street corners waiting for pickup. As well, the streets, already in less than perfect condition, are in the process of being torn up to update electrical and water services, but it is a slow process.
Those defects don’t bother us. The people are what really make a difference. We have encountered nothing but helpful and welcoming Cubans. Even walking the streets by ourselves remains very safe. Can we say the same in our larger North American and European cities?

What were the highlights of our 2016 visit? Visits to the Bellas Artes (National Art Galleries) both the Cuban and International collections held our interest for over two hours, without viewing all the treasures they possess. Going to a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the newly renovated Alicia Alonzo Theatre of Havana with Ms Alonzo, who is credited with the revival of culture in Cuba, in attendance. She was given a standing ovation by the Cuban audience just before the performance began. Even without English subtitles and simple sets, the performance of the opera was a treat. Sitting in a café on the street, eating a well-cooked meal and watching the world go by as well as enjoying the music of traveling musicians.  

A Flamenco performance in Meson de la Flota restaurant in Old Havana was just a good as we remembered from past visits. Havana has a wealth of musical talent. Visiting Callejón Hamel, an alley in the Cuban section of Central Havana, where a community beautification project has resulted in a mishmash of murals, sculptures, music and a few cafés to delight the many tourists who visit, especially on Sunday afternoon when the local bands come to play.

The Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, the cemetery where notable Cubans and wealthy families bury their dead, was a short taxi ride from our Hostal Peregrino. The cemetery is still in use, although it looked to be filled to capacity. As our visit was on a Sunday, a service in the main chapel was well attended and several funerals and burials were in progress. We spent several hours admiring the many elaborate family crypts and reading some of the stories of the more unusual monuments, the strangest being Las Milagrosas (the miracles). The grieving husband of a woman who died in childbirth in 1901 was known to visit his wife’s grave several times a day, each time knocking the grave with one of the iron rings on the burial vault and walking backwards as he left, prolonging his memory of his wife. When the bodies were exhumed many years later, the woman’s body was said to be still untouched by the years and the baby, buried at her feet, was in her arms. A cult quickly developed where people arrive daily bearing gifts of flowers and performing the ritual of knocking on the grave and leaving still facing the crypt, all in hopes of solving some problem in their lives or fulfilling a dream. Several believers arrived while we were there, all to lay flowers and perform the same ritual.

We stayed in the same Casa Particular, Hostal Peregrino, as we have on our two previous visits. The difference was that instead of the two original rooms in the Calle Consulado street apartment, there are now five rooms available and further rooms in two other locations, one in Old Havana and one a few blocks away from the original apartment. We stayed in the original location in order for me to engage the same Spanish language instructor, Daisy Pérez, to come to the Hostal and help me rejuvenate my rusty Spanish for 1 ½ hours each afternoon. I am now reviewing those lessons every day and practising my still imperfect Spanish with the employees of the Casa in Havana and our subsequent Casas elsewhere in Cuba.

What did Ray do while I was busy with Daisy? He got to roam the streets of Havana at his leisure, enjoying all the architectural styles and the people.