Saturday 7 February 2015

Caribbean Notes

Two weeks ago my wife and I flew back into a typically cold, wet and horrid British January after having spent a wonderful time sailing around the Eastern Caribbean on a much belated honeymoon. Before those warm memories are driven entirely from my head, I thought it best to run off a quick post about some of the places we went to, with the caveat that, having only visited these places for a couple of days each, I cannot possibly do each place full justice:

Cartagena, Colombia
The city was surprisingly nice, especially given that I had expected Colombia to be the roughest stop on our trip due to the security situation there. Whilst heavily armed police were in evidence in some parts of the city, however, the atmosphere was relaxed. There was both no sign of the FARC, nor any sign of concern about them.

The old town of Cartagena is a gem, if one with parts that were over-run by tourists. The gold museum, entry to which is free, was a great place to visit, and the food we had at a restaurant in the less-touristified Getsemani side of town was first rate.

Colon, Panama
Sad to say, Colon itself proved to be a quite forgettable and insalubrious town, and the area near the docks had a particularly threatening feel to it - police on bikes eventually rolled up on us as we wandered the streets near the port area to and told us in no uncertain terms that the area simply wasn't safe to walk around in.

By contrast, Portobelo, 40 minutes by taxi from Colon, was well worth a visit. Black vultures flocked around the fortresses of the old town, and the sun beat down upon the bay where, 400 years before, Sir Francis Drake (who the local museum labeled a "pirate") had been laid to rest. We were slightly concerned to see groups of locals with their faces painted black who were carrying long, heavy bats standing at points along our route to the town collecting money from passing cars, until we learned that they were actually celebrating a local festival and were likely dressed as the Black Christ of Porto Belo. The calamari we ate there was simply excellent.

San Lorenzo, across the Panama canal (the locks of which we also visited at Gatun) from Colon proved to be a ruined Spanish fortress standing in the middle of virgin jungle. Standing on the ramparts of the old fort and looking down on the bay below, where brilliant blue water lapped at the edge of dense jungle, you felt you knew what things would have been like there in the days of the conquistadors.

Whilst Colon itself was nothing special, one of my abiding memories of the whole trip was our leaving of the place - a cloud of black butterflies seemed to flock around the ship and followed us until we were several miles out to sea, a strange and beautiful experience. We caught one final, perplexing sight of land - a flare-gun had been fired in the city for some reason - and then as the flare fell, the sun set and we were off on the next part of our journey.

Montego Bay, Jamaica
It's a shame to say this, but the town of Montego Bay also proved to be more than a tad unmemorable, which combined with all the warnings we heard of robberies there (true or not, I don't know), and the continual and tiresome shouting from touts, put us off from doing too much exploring there. Except for a visit to the civic centre to see the exhibit about Sam Sharpe, who was hung by the British in the main square outside the museum 181 years ago this year, we saw little of the town.

Doctors Cave Beach, on the other hand, was immaculate. The coral reef which we snorkeled on was an exquisite riot of colour, with fish of every size wizzing over the coral. Everyone should swim on a coral reef at least once in their life.

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Roughly an hour's drive from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen is definitely part of the the same holiday resort world as it's more famous neighbour, which is not to say it was unpleasant. Actually, after the unsettling atmosphere of Colon and Montego Bay it was quite welcome.

The Mayan ruins at Tulum which we visited (we didn't have enough time to get to Chichen Itza) were spectacular, if seemingly over-run by iguanas. It was odd to think that only half the old buildings there have been explored properly, with many more remaining buried or un-protected in the surrounding mangrove swamp. My advice to anyone who wants to go there is to take your swimming clothes, as there is a beach directly below the main tower that makes an excellent break in the middle of a hot Mexican day.

Havana, Cuba
Having lived in China certain aspects of Cuba were not unfamiliar - the propaganda slogans one saw around Havana, for example. A visitor to the propaganda-packed Museum of The Revolucion (the exhibits of which bear only a tangential relation to history) would have found little to choose between it and some of the museums in Beijing.

Others aspects were, for me, quite new - the generally ruined state of many buildings in the capital was something I had heard about but not expected to be so omni-present. Even the North Korean-style monuments at Plaza De La Revolucion looking somewhat time-worn, with cracked and over-grown curb-sides.

Indeed, with the long queues we saw forming outside bakeries, the talk of shortages of basic necessities (although this may just have been a local version of the powdered milk scam - grifters and beggars were, despite what you may have read elsewhere, prominent on the streets of Havana), my wife was reminded of Poland in the 1980's. I have heard journalists ascribe the state of modern-day Cuba to the embargo, but pretty much every country governed according to Marxist economics has ended up this way (the main square in Wroclaw was almost falling apart by the end of the 80's), so colour me unconvinced.

All this aside Havana was definitely an interesting place to visit, many of the colonial-era buildings had a faded grandeur to them, and the people were very friendly. Sitting in the department store at Plaza Carlos III, which opened in 1997, and seeing the new developments and restorations near the port area, it looked like Cuba is on the way to eventually rejoining the modern world and ditching the insane economic policies of the communist era. The US's re-establishment of relations with Cuba will hopefully greatly hasten this. Whether democratic reforms will also occur is impossible to say, but the Cuban leadership is at least likely to try to copy the example of China, and seek to stay in power by resisting any political reform.

Georgetown, Grand Cayman
Going from the dilapidated worker's paradise to the beating heart of one of the world's biggest tax-havens and playground of the plutocrats was quite a switch. Happily the Cayman Islands (over which the British flag still flies) turned out to the nicest and friendliest place we stopped at in the whole trip. My must-dos from the Cayman Islands include the local craft beers, which were delicious, and any of its seafood establishments.

We left port behind a Royal Navy warship, and started our journey back to Gatwick.

[Picture: A local fishing boat in the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, where a planned stop was cancelled due to rough seas] 

As seen in Havana