juliamhammond

Latin America & the Caribbean

What’s it like to visit Oaxaca for Day of the Dead?

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This October I’m teaming up with Lauren of Diary of a Spanglish Girl for a feature on Day of the Dead. It’s one of my favourite festivals so when Lauren posted a shout out on her Twitter feed asking if anyone had been to Mexico for Day of the Dead and would like to share their experience with her, I jumped at the chance. You can read the interview here. By the way, Lauren’s also the person behind an excellent Facebook group for travel bloggers called Share Your Travel Blog Post And Connect With The World. If you have a travel blog, it’s well worth signing up as there are plenty of tips and experiences to inspire your future travels. She also has her own Facebook page which is a helpful resource if you love to visit Spain.

The Day of the Dead, or  Día de Muertos as it’s known locally, is a big deal in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca.  Celebrated at the end of October and beginning of November each year, the festival focuses on the dead, and the whole town gets involved in some way.  What I didn’t bargain for was how involved I’d get as well.

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Arriving a few days before the main celebrations, work was beginning to get underway on the altars.  Each family creates an altar to tempt their ancestors’ spirits back to earth.  I’d been in touch with Mariana from a small hotel called Las Bugambilias and she’d invited me to join them.  In the courtyard, stood a life-sized model of Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead.  For a century or so, La Calavera Catrina has been associated with Día de Muertos, thanks to a cartoonist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He was known for satire and drew the rich in fancy hats and feather boas, ridiculing them by implying death was only for the poor.

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Catrina takes the form of a skeleton dressed in elegant clothing, dripping in furs or, in this case, feather boas, strings of beads draped around her neck and an elegant cigarette holder in her hand. She was comical rather than creepy, my first hint that this festival has fun as well as respect at its heart.

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With a small group of fellow tourists and under Mariana’s expert guidance, we set about creating an altar called an ofrenda.  Each of us had been allocated a specific task: some threaded marigold blooms onto strings; others dusted icing sugar skulls in the yard to form a pathway to the altar.  My job was to create a centrepiece cross of white carnations and dot it with tiny purple buds. It was harder than it looked to get the blooms just right. Mariana was a perfectionist, but after her intervention, the cross really did look the business. After several hours of preparation, the ofrenda began to take shape.  Loose marigold petals defined the path, their pungent aroma pervading the tiny courtyard.  The altar itself was decorated with candles, fruit, nuts, incense and brightly coloured bunting.  Sepia photographs of family ancestors peeked out from behind yet more marigolds.

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Finally, we’d finished, and to celebrate, out came a bottle of Mezcal for a toast, to our efforts and to the ancestors we’d honoured.  I’d been asked to bring along family photos and raised a glass to my sorely missed grandparents, their picture wedged between a bicycle candleholder and a lime. I pledged to myself and to them that I would make an effort this time next year to recreate this feeling with my own ofrenda.

The following evening, a group of us headed for the cemetery.  On the night of 31st October, residents and visitors alike flock to the old and new cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, on the outskirts of Oaxaca. They were busy with people tending graves, laying marigolds and other offerings and lighting candles in memory of their deceased relatives.  Many families would stay all night.  I wandered amongst the weathered graves in the packed old cemetery, taking care not to trip over tree roots in the gloom of the candlelight.

Vibrant scarlet gladioli added a splash of colour to the warm amber tones lent by the flickering flames. White canna lilies added grandeur.  Vivid orange cempasuchil dominated the scene through sheer weight of numbers.  Some graves were a hive of activity; at others, the mood of the relatives was more reflective.  Once or twice, a lone mourner wept softly at a graveside, their grief recent and still raw. It was hard not to feel emotional. Yet, I was warmly welcomed, invited to share a spot at several gravesides.

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At the new cemetery, there was a party atmosphere.  The floral colour palette was enhanced by fluorescent wands that poked out of pushchairs. Lovestruck teenagers sneaked a kiss behind their parents’ backs.  Small children munched on sugar skulls and sucked skull lollipops.  The sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller boomed from a loudspeaker, almost masking the cries of the many hawkers selling snacks and party treats.  At the edge of the cemetery, a funfair had been set up with the usual stalls and rides.  If it hadn’t been for the tombstones, it would have been easy to forget you were in a cemetery at all.

Comparsas (local groups) parade all night through the streets in costume, celebrating the return of the ancestors with music and dancing.  The following evening, the Las Bugambilias team took us out of town to the village of San Agustin Etla, where I’d heard their Muerteada parade was second to none.  Anticipation mounted as a crowd gathered in the narrow lane.  Eventually the procession reached the village, an eclectic band of ogres, devils and monsters, each with a costume more fantastic than the last.  There were ghouls with terrifyingly realistic make up alongside drag queens with pink hair.

The devil carried his scythe, passing a ‘Panteonero’, someone from the pantheon, whose eyeball was missing.  Somehow because of the crowds, most were freakish rather than scary, but they were all to be commended for their efforts.  As the final performer arrived, in one corner of the village square, a play was being re-enacted.  Many of those in the parade weren’t needed, however, and had planted themselves against walls and on kerbstones to have a much-needed drink. I wandered amongst them exchanging pleasantries as far as my limited Spanish would permit, posing for photos and trying on some of the costumes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing one; the weight was impressively heavy. No wonder they’d sat down!

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As the evening wore on, a chill settled on the air and the Mezcal came out again.  Passing the bottle round, glasses were raised.

“Salud!” Compared to the sombre way we remembered our deceased back home, the Mexicans embraced their spirits, celebrating with them and having fun in the same way they would have done when they were alive.  I decided my grandparents, gregarious even in old age, would have given it the thumbs up.

If you’d like to find out more about my experience of Day of the Dead, make sure you check out Lauren’s blog post. For my take on why I prefer Day of the Dead to Halloween, have a read of an earlier post of mine.


How to see the Bahamas’ famous swimming pigs

The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  Most of these islands are uninhabited.  Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands.  The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay.  Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby.  He’s not alone.  The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.

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But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents.  No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw.  Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them.  The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.

It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap.  Many operators offer excursions.  A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks.  We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs.  To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range.  Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.

Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip.  We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people).  Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person.  We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530.  We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.

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Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed.  We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock.  We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.

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Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived.  This in itself made the day.  Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.

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Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule.  Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set.  Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience.  Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth.  And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.

Would I recommend the trip? Definitely.  It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.


Heading to Nassau? Don’t miss this excellent food tour!

Ask anyone who’s visited the Bahamas what is the food that epitomises the islands and chances are, they’re going to say conch. Pronounced ‘conk’ this ubiquitous marine mollusc is served in all manner of ways, the most popular being deep fried fritters with just the right amount of spice to give them a kick. There’s also delicious cracked conch, which can best be described as the Bahamian version of fish and chips. Every restaurant has it on the menu, so finding it is easy. Knowing which serves the best is a whole lot harder, however.

I believe there’s no better way to get to know the heart and soul of a country than through its stomach. Though the enduring image of the Bahamas is of glistening turquoise waters surrounding necklaces of cays, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of the water and into Nassau’s historic downtown district. But the capital’s streets are packed with eateries and it’s hard to know where to start. I figure it’s always best to enlist the help of a local when it comes to food. I’d been tipped off by Cecilia fom Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours that in Nassau, I should get in touch with Tru Bahamian Food Tours.

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Alanna Rogers set up the company in 2012, describing herself as a passionate foodie whose own travels inspired her to showcase the cuisine of her own country. The Bites of Nassau food tour is popular with cruise ship passengers looking for a memorable experience when their ship’s in dock, as well as with those who are staying on the island. It even attracts locals, which in my opinion is another measure of how good it is. Something like 5000 people take the tour each year, and the company is going from strength to strength.

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My husband and I took the tour this March as part of a week-long holiday in the Bahamas. From our base at Cable Beach it was an easy ride into Nassau. Guide and operations manager Murray was easy to find on the steps of the cathedral, built in 1841 as the first official place of worship in the country. Our small group strolled around the corner to Market Street for a look at the pastel pink Balcony House. The oldest wooden structure in the city, it hosted Ian Fleming when he came to the Bahamas when Thunderball was filmed in 1965.

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Across the street was Bahamian Cookin’. Murray warned us that this would be the largest of our tasting plates, and it was here we had our introduction to the Bahamian staples: conch fritters, fall off the bone chicken, baked mac and cheese and of course peas and rice. I hate peas. But peas here are beans, fortunately, and this was so tasty I confess to stealing some of my husband’s while his attention was distracted. On the way out, we had a refreshing glass of switcha, a kind of Bahamian limeade. Apparently, spellings of switcha vary considerably so if you’re reading this and spelling it differently, I’d love to know how you write it.

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Next up we got to meet one of Nassau’s most colourful characters. In the Towne Hotel, we were served a potent Planter’s Punch while enjoying the company of Max, who’s the hotel’s resident blue macaw. The artwork in the hotel was fabulously diverse and a big talking point as we sipped our rum cocktails.  The chatter continued as we reached Graycliff.

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Now a hotel, it was built in 1700 by privateer John Howard Graysmith.  An inn from 1844, it was also once the private home of wealthy Canadian Izaak Killam and later Lord Dudley. The latter played host to the likes of Edward and Mrs Simpson, Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. It’s also seen Al Capone, the Beatles, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

We learned that some of the bottles of wine in its cellar would cost the average tourist a year’s wages. Passing on that, instead we got to try some of the chocolates in the on-site factory. The first, labelled “white chocolate twice as hot as goat pepper” was a truly Marmite experience – some of us (me included!) spat it out half-eaten while others would have been delighted to eat the whole tray. That’s half the fun of taking a food tour, of course, to experiment with flavours you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.

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Nearby is Government House. Our Queen is Head of State in the Bahamas but of course her representative the Governor General takes care of things for her and these are his digs. The building actually stands on the highest point of downtown Nassau affording a fabulous view of the cruise ships in dock. We walked down a flight of steps – not those steps – to visit Biggity in Bay Street. Amanda’s creative take on pigeon pea hummus, rosemary and thyme infused olive oil, and garlic Johnny cake crostini was a big hit with everyone, as was the bush tea we washed it down with.

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Murray explained that Bahamians consider bush medicine important. A nod to the country’s African heritage, native spices, leaves, flowers and tree bark are artfully combined to cure all manner of ills. Apparently it’s also quite common to consume a medicinal tot of rum to avoid having to visit the doctor. I’ve bookmarked this interesting blog from the Tru Bahamian Food Tours website just in case I feel under the weather:
https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/tru-bahamian-must-eats/bush-teas/.

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Our penultimate stop was at Athena Cafe. Many of the Greek community in Nassau can trace ancestors who came to participate in the trade of sea sponges back in the 19th century. They stayed on, blending typical Greek dishes with local ingredients – we had a tasty chowder. Rounding off the tour was a sweet treat from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company. The group enjoyed rum cake with walnuts but as I’m not a fan, my rum cake came nut-free with pineapple instead. It was delicious.

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Tru Bahamian Food Tours promote Bahamian cuisine as “the islands’ most unexplored cultural treasure”. After a few hours in Murray’s company, I think they’ve got that just about right. What sets this tour apart from other food tours is the emphasis it places on history, culture and the pivotal role of immigrants to the Bahamas. When asked what they enjoyed best about the tour, most people commended the contextual information that Murray had provided.

However, compared to other food tours I’ve taken there were fewer opportunities to chat to fellow participants about the food, which has in the past been an enjoyable way of processing what I’ve learnt. Also, towards the end, the tour felt a little rushed; several of the other tours I’ve done have been around five hours long. By lengthening the tour from its current three hours, both these points could be addressed. I guess when something’s good, you don’t want it to end.

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But those are minor criticisms of what’s an excellent tour. If you’re planning to visit Nassau any time soon, and if you want to understand what makes the country tick, this is a must for your itinerary. But take my advice: arrange the tour at the start of your trip. Once you’ve tasted what’s on offer, you’re going to want to go back for more.

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You can find out more about Tru Bahamian Food Tours on their website and social media feeds – the links are at the foot of this post. The excellent Bites of Nassau tour is a great way to experience the islands’ capital Nassau. It runs several times a day from Monday to Saturday and lasts about 3 hours; you can book online. The company has also just launched a Sunday cocktail tour, which should prove to be just as popular as the original Bites tour. If you’re feeling really inspired, they can also arrange cooking classes giving you the skills to recreate the dishes you’ve enjoyed once you get home.

The Bites of Nassau costs $69 per person. My husband and I enjoyed the tour free of charge in exchange for promoting the tour via this blog.  The photos which illustrate my blog are a mixture of mine and those supplied by Tru Bahamian Food Tours, but the opinions are entirely my own.

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https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/
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Twitter: @trubahamianfood
Instagram: @trubahamianfoodtours


In Key West: a museum with a heart

When it comes to literary museums, there’s somewhere you need to visit while you’re in Key West. If you know something about the place, you’re probably thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s house. It’s a popular stop: the queue to get in and see this historic home and its present day six-toed feline residents snaked around the block when I popped in for a visit.

CFFCF60D-EB77-4171-ABD7-19288DC63E1CNevertheless, you’d be wrong.  Though I wanted to like it, I found it hard to make an emotional connection with the Hemingway place.  The museum to which I refer has no cats – at least none I saw while I was there.  Instead, the newly reopened and expanded Tennessee Williams exhibit had heart and soul in spades compared to its more famous neighbour.

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The museum is the result of years of collecting and a true labour of love. I was fortunate that Dennis Beaver was available to give me a curator’s tour. The passion he had for his subject and the stories he had to tell added an extra dimension to the already fascinating collection of exhibits.  Somehow he brought to life so vividly a playwright who’d hitherto been a stranger to me that I felt I’d known him personally.

Describing Tennessee Williams, Dennis painted a picture of a man who loved to entertain the rich and famous. Yet home was a relatively modest place on Duncan Street, a short walk from the museum and now a private home.  A tall white fence protects its current occupants from peeping eyes, but there’s a beautifully crafted model in the museum should you wish to see what would have been inside.

Photos of Williams with the Hollywood glitterati of the time revealed that he moved in glamorous circles. But behind the public facade was a complicated and insecure individual. A childhood bout of diphtheria had left him a lasting legacy of hypochondria. If a visitor complained of a cold, Dennis said, Williams would believe he’d caught it.

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It would take a special someone to manage that anxiety and that person was Frank Merlo. He dealt with the minutiae of Williams’ life, acting as the buffer between the playwright and an outside world that made constant demands on him. At first, Williams would refer to Frank as his assistant, or something equally businesslike. In fact he was his partner and the rock of his personal life. Frank though would die young, succumbing to lung cancer aged just 41. Williams fell apart, mourning the loss of his right hand man.  He was famously quoted as saying that after Frank’s death he entered his “stoned age” dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol to fill the void.

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The Williams we know was a prolific playwright. Seventeen of his plays were turned into successful movies, among them Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar named Desire. The Rose Tattoo was another, set in Tennessee’s adopted Key West locale.  But he didn’t enjoy the process of creating a screenplay, often opting to turn his work over to someone else.  In many ways he saw the Technicolor world of the movies as a distraction. When he did get involved, he preferred to make a film in black and white so as not to detract from the story.

When the end came, it was dramatic and tragic as much of his life had been.  Newspapers reported Williams had choked on the top of a medicine bottle, while his brother claimed he’d been murdered.  Years later his death would officially be recorded as an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.  His brother ignored Williams’ wish to be buried at sea, instead interring him at Calvary Cemetery in St Louis, the city in which he’d grown up and the city he professed to hate.

Whether you know much or little about Tennessee Williams and his work, this little museum is a must if you’re visiting the place he called home. No matter that this isn’t his house – you’ll get a greater insight into his world from fragments of a life lived than you might from a collection of period furniture. Find it at 513 Truman Street, a stone’s throw from the buzz of Duval.

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While the opinions recorded here are my own, I’m grateful to the museum for waiving the $7 entrance fee – though I’d have happily paid it.


Trinidad: sugar and slaves

Trinidad’s fortunes were made in sugar and slaves. A few kilometres from the city, the Valle de los Ingenios is littered with the ruins of long abandoned sugar mills. While Cuba still harvests fields of sugar cane, production has long since moved away from this region.

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Standing in the grounds of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill, little imagination is required to picture how the scene would have been a century or two ago. The main house is still intact, a little weatherbeaten perhaps but not yet derelict. Its cedar windows and doors have been bleached by decades of sun. These days they’d pass for shabby chic and be considered worthy of a magazine spread. Back then, they were functional, the heavy shutters designed to keep the house cool despite its tropical setting.

Across the clearing my guide pointed out a bell tower, used as a lookout and built to call time for those toiling in the fields or factory buildings. Beyond the tower is what remains of the factory’s foundations and beyond that, the slave quarters, hidden away in the forest and once shielded from view by the factory itself. The prevailing wind had also been taken into account when siting the main house, so that sensitive noses wouldn’t have to contend with the sickly sweet smell of molasses.

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The first mill on this site opened in 1776. Initially its assets were limited to just three horses, ten slaves and a single small sugar press. The Spaniard who owned it sold up to one Pedro Malamoros Borrell, who grew the farm and gave it the name we use today. He owned many slaves and life was tough for them. From November to April, they’d work ten days on and one off, working long hours in the hot sun and humid conditions cutting the cane.

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Others grafted in the factory pushing the sugar presses known as trapiches which squeezed juice from the raw cane. It was dangerous work and not uncommon for workers to lose an arm if it caught in the press. Though much of the mill lies in ruins, you can still see where the sugar would have been boiled to create molasses. My guide explained how heat passed along the row of nine pans, gradually getting cooler the further the distance it travelled from the centre. The cane juice was cleaned and transferred from pan to pan as well, constantly stirred until crystals formed to turn it into muscovado sugar.

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On the ground I spotted what looked like a rotten coconut. In fact it was the fruit of a güira tree. Used to make bowls from which the drink canchánchara could be served, they were also used to present offerings to the gods. My guide told me of an altogether more down to earth use: the insides are considered an effective flea treatment for dogs, and probably better for them than the chemical treatment I use back home, albeit gross to apply.

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Between May and October the slaves would have been rented out for other work. Slaves were entitled to keep a quarter of their pay, the rest lining their owner’s pockets. Savings could buy freedom. Slaves were more likely to purchase freedom for their children than themselves, or to use the money to pay for their own small house just outside the communal barracks.

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Though their lives were strictly controlled and conversion to Catholicism encouraged, the practice of African religions such as Santeria continued. A ceiba tree is considered sacred to followers of Santeria, representing Changó, the God of Thunder as its soft bark renders it lightning-proof. One stands to this day near where the barracks once were, a face visible in its trunk.

Borrell sold up in the mid 19th century to Carlos Malibrán and made a killing. But within a few short years, a crisis would hit the sugar industry. Malibrán would offload the property just four years later. Across the valley, crop rotation had been overlooked by mill owners greedy for profit and the soil had lost its fertility year in year. Yields fell and as competition from Europe’s sugar beet farmers felled prices, the rug was pulled from under Cuban sugar’s feet. The new owner of San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill lost pretty much everything and ended up mortgaged to the hilt. What had been fields of sugar cane were turned over to pasture.

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As the Cuban war for independence gathered momentum in 1868, slaves saw their opportunity to gain their freedom by joining the army. The flight of labour was another nail in the industry’s coffin. By 1898, the owners of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill had closed up and moved to Sancti Spiritus and the factory was demolished. Ownership passed to the Fonseca family in 1905 and they lived here until 2012. Burdened by the cost of restoration, they donated the house and ruins to the state.

Getting there
I arranged a morning visit to Valle de los Ingenios with Paradiso – a place on a shared tour cost 22 CUCs. You’ll find their tour agency at General Lino Pérez 30 about a minute’s walk from the Etecsa office in Trinidad. Alternatively haggle with a driver of a classic car, making sure you negotiate for the taxi to wait.


On the trail of the mob in Havana

The classic American automobiles that cruise the Malecón ooze the glamour of bygone days, but 1950s Havana had a seedy alter ego. Mob-run casinos drew a decadent crowd. Vices of all kinds took centre stage. Traces of this era of such excess can still be seen today – if you know where to look.  Curious, I contacted Havana Super Tour and asked guide and founder Michael Rodriguez to let me in on a few of Havana’s dark secrets. Waiting to take us back in time was an immaculate silver grey Pontiac driven by owner Ricardo. Michael joked that Cuban men value their cars more highly than anything else in their lives – even their women. I’m not convinced that’s true of only Cuba.

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We began where the charmingly decrepit mansions of Habana Vieja give way to the boulevards of Centro. Gambling is banned in today’s Cuba, but the old casinos have been repurposed as conference rooms and elegant salons in many of the capital’s most renowned and once notorious hotels. One of them is the historic Hotel Sevilla. I’d stayed there during my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago and around the corner from the exquisite Moorish-style lobby where I’d once checked in is a rogue’s gallery of past guests – good and bad. This time my focus was on the latter. Michael steered me towards a photograph of Al Capone, perhaps Chicago’s most notorious gangster, who used to book out the entire sixth floor when he was in town. Privacy comes at a price when you need to make sure no one eavesdrops.

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Michael led me across the street to a tiny store selling antiquarian books and other memorabilia from times past. Leafing through a folder of old black and white photos, he showed me how some of the Cuban capital’s hotels would have looked in Batista’s day and in the years immediately following the overthrow of his government. The city was the place to see and be seen. Hollywood’s biggest names came in their droves with Frank Sinatra leading the pack. Scandal was never far away. Michael reckoned that despite rumours that Sinatra’s singing career had initially been financed by the mob, he was clean – in Havana anyway. Some of his associates, however, were not.

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The biggest player of all on the Havana mob scene was an East European Jew who’d come to the USA to reinvent himself. Smart as they came, Meyer Lansky grew up in New York with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was the brains to Luciano’s brawn and together, they made a formidable pair. You messed with them at your peril. Having operated out of the Nacional for years, Lansky had his hands in a number of other businesses, including the successful Montmartre Club which was eventually torched by a revolutionary supporter in the early 1960s.

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Over a Mafia mojito at the Nacional. Michael told me that it was common for a Hollywood name to provide a respectable front for the money laundering, shady deals and violent altercations that were going on behind the scenes. Actor George Raft got his big break in the 1932 gangster movie Scarface. When New York mobster Santa Trafficante Jnr. opened the Capri, he needed someone to be its respectable public face. But though it was commonly held that Raft owned a sizeable stake in the hotel, Nicholas Di Costanzo, Charlie “The Blade” Tourine and Santino “Sonny the Butcher” Masselli operated it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many of the regular clientele were anything but legit themselves.

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Lansky himself opened the Riviera Hotel in 1956 as a front for his deals. It was one of many businesses through which he could launder his ill-gotten gains. Though he claimed Cuba ruined him when Castro rolled into Havana, under Batista’s regime he’d lived like a king. Despite decades of ruling the organised crime roost, the only crime the authorities ever managed to pin on him was a charge of illegal gambling.

The Riviera, our last stop, could have been a set from the hit US TV show Mad Men, had US-imposed sanctions not restricted where the studio’s dollars be spent. Mid-century modern might be back in vogue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find somewhere where the fixtures and fittings are as original as the furnishings. Walking through the doors of the Riviera Hotel was like stepping back in time, its 21st century patrons sticking out like a sore thumb in their modern apparel. Its casino was now a meeting room, the showy chandeliers the only clue to its dazzling past.

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Out back the pool had a turquoise diving board that just needed a girl with an hourglass figure and a red halter neck bathing suit to complete the picture postcard shot. Instead, an elderly lady with a white swimming cap and cellulite for thighs glided at a leisurely pace through the sunlit water. Michael suggested I took a closer look at the shape of the pool which had been constructed, aptly macabre, to take the form of an open coffin.

This is a chapter of Cuba’s history that is overshadowed by Che Guevara and Castro’s revolution, but it’s no less compelling. After Batista was kicked out, Havana under Fidel’s leadership cleaned up its act. But there’s still plenty of tangible evidence to make this a fascinating tour and if you want to see a side to Havana many travellers miss, then this is most certainly it.  It’s one thing reading the story, but nothing compares to standing in the same spot of some of the 20th century’s shadiest characters.

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About HST

Havana Super Tour is a rarity in Havana, a privately run enterprise which specialises in subjects as diverse as Art Deco, architecture, African religion, art or Hemingway. Alternatively, work with Michael and the HST team to design a bespoke tour to suit your own interests. Your classic car leaves from Casa 1932 at Campanario 63, a couple of blocks from the Malecón in Centro. The highly recommended Mob tour costs 35 CUCs per person, minimum two people, with transportation in a vintage automobile of course. Contact HST by email at elandarincarvajal@gmail.com or visit their website at:

http://www.campanario63.com/

The views expressed in this piece are my own, though I’m grateful to HST for offering me a private tour for the price of a group outing.


Making sense of Cuba’s currency

Cuba’s idiosyncratic monetary system can be daunting for first time visitors but it’s much simpler in practice than it might first seem.

Cuban currency is a closed currency, which means it cannot be purchased outside the country and neither can they be exchanged for other currencies outside Cuba.  The government runs a dual system: CUPs (pesos nacionales) for residents and CUCs (pesos convertibles) for visitors.  CUC notes have “pesos convertibles” written on them.  In practice, most of the time you’ll just use CUCs and prices will be referred to as pesos.  In some shops, you may see dual prices displayed, but if in doubt, just ask.  Be careful though not to get fobbed off with pesos instead of CUCs as they’re worth a lot less.  One of the best ways to avoid being scammed is never to change money on the street.  Instead use a Cadeca (exchange bureau) or bank, though you will have to queue on the street to get in.  Rates in hotels tend to be lower.

Which currency should you take?

Euros and pounds are easy to change once you arrive.  If you’re arriving independently into Havana’s Jose Marti airport, there are two choices.  Inside the arrivals hall (but after you’ve cleared immigration and customs) you’ll find a couple of ATMs next to the information kiosk.  To find an exchange bureau exit the arrivals hall and turn immediately left once you get outside.  Dispense with the taxi touts with a polite “No, gracias”.  You can change your currency at the official desk here and will be given a receipt.

What about US dollars?

The dollar isn’t king here like it is elsewhere in Latin America.  The uncomfortable relationship between Uncle Sam and Cuba adds a 10% additional commission fee to any exchange transactions, making it very poor value.  You also won’t be able to use any credit card issued by an American bank, though MasterCard and Visa issued outside the US are OK.  If you’re unsure whether this affects you, check with your issuer before you leave home.

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Can you rely on credit cards?

In short, no.  It’s wise to keep a store of cash on you just in case you struggle to find an ATM.  Few places accept credit cards – this is a cash based economy.  If you haven’t prepaid your accommodation, you might find that you can’t pay by card, so double check well before you’re due to check out to avoid any problems.  However, if you’ve made an internet booking, you’ll have been able to pay by credit card in advance.  Independent travellers should carry proof of this paid reservation as the internet can be unreliable in Cuba – your accommodation provider may not have access to emails or booking systems when you arrive.

Have you seen my blog about using the internet in Cuba?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/cuba-internet-101