Cuba Libre?: Beach Interlude

Playas del Este

A lot of people bypass the hustle and bustle and exhaust fumes of Havana and head straight for the beach resorts.  One afternoon, those of us not staying on for a beach holiday at the end headed out to one to see what all the fuss was about, this was the Caribbean after all.  A thirty minute taxi ride took us to the one of the Playas del Este and the beautiful golden sands and azure waters of Megano.  It was stunning, uncrowded and unspoiled but with bamboo sun shades and little beach huts selling delicious cocktails and snacks.

Megano

 We decided on one cabaret show too and the Cafe Parisien, located next to our afternoon haunt the Hotel Nacional was chosen.  It was a dazzling spectacle that almost lasted too long and is probably one of the most expensive nights out to be had in Havana.  It certainly ticked the ‘see a cabaret’ box.  The room was small and intimate and plush and we had an excellent table next to the stage.  The food, paid for with the tickets was shocking.  Ham in the vegetarian pasta and the carnivores didnt like what they got either.
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Cuba:Still in the Cold

Laz Terrazas

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In stark contrast to Cuba’s beautiful neoclassical and Spanish colonial Havana facades the Eastern bloc blocks in Laz Terrazas stand like giant lego pieces on the green hillsides.  Las Terrazas, an eco village built in the 60s is fifty miles out of Havana.  This bucolic idyll is well worth a visit for the tranquility of the beautiful river and its setting in the heart of a 25,000 hectare UNESCO biosphere reserve in the Sierra del Rosario, (incongruous Soviet era prefabricated concrete buildings aside).

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If you go there on the wonderful and very economical government tour (bookable at hotels and Cubanacan offices) a lunch and music will be provided at a beautiful spot by the river.  Those in the know (our little bus picked up Cuban people at various places in Havana) had brought along their costumes and swam here for a while until the heavens opened.  I found a thatched roofed picnic table with wooden benches in a tranquil spot along the river and laid down and watched the rain.

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If you are in a group and can hire a vehicle then you can plan your own schedule, dont miss the beautiful spots by the river but then later on (and we didnt have time) you can eat at Las Terrazas’ vegetarian restaurant El Romero (Terraza 170, Edificio 5).  The menu looked amazing.

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When Vladimir Putin visited Cuba in 2000 he and Fidel Castro bemoaned the increasing United States world domination.  Castro told him  ‘Who knows better than the country situated only 90 miles from the biggest superpower of the world?’  Vladimir Putin, without mentioning the United States, agreed that such ‘unipolarity’ allows one country to ‘monopolize international relationships and to dominate them.” He said the last time this occurred, ‘we all know how it ended,’ apparently a reference to Nazi Germany and World War II.

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Rita Rips Us Off

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After my solitary and wonderful sojourn in Vinales I joined a group in Havana.  The group did have a purpose but more about that later.  Having joined the group I felt obliged to do a few communal things with the people in it and some of them, both the people and the things were very nice!  However, the problem with doing anything with the group (at least initially before we stopped doing things that were laid on), was that it inevitably involved being crammed into and carted around in the worst kind of rickety charabanc imaginable.  On top of this we always stood for an age outside our wonderful hotel waiting for the jalopy to turn up.

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On one occasion, once signed up to go to the canon firing ceremony at the Parque Historico Militar Morro-Cabana we nearly missed the canon firing.  Rita, our local guide, arranged by the holiday company Skyros, had been stuck in traffic across town and we waited and waited and when we got there there was just time to get in place for the historical costumed ceremonial firing after which we didnt get to visit the museum because it immediately closed, they charged 25CUC (about £15 or $25) for the debacle.

Taxi

My advice would be to take a four peso taxi from Vedado or Habana Vieja or make an afternoon of it and take a long walk along the famous Malecon.  You may have to cross the road sometimes to avoid the waves that crash onto the pavement but you can see the stunning but crumbling architecture along this iconic sea road and recall scenes from the film Our Man in Havana.  Fidel allowed the 1959 to be filmed in Cuba but complained that the brutality of Batista’s regime was not accurately depicted.  Greene commented ‘Alas, the book did me little good with the new rulers in Havana. In poking fun at the British Secret Service, I had minimized the terror of Batista’s rule. I had not wanted too black a background for a light-hearted comedy, but those who suffered during the years of dictatorship could hardly be expected to appreciate that my real subject was the absurdity of the British agent and not the justice of a revolution.’

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His hilarious book does touch on in parts the brutality of Batista’s regime more that the film (a cigarette case made of human skin, class distinctions in torture :- ‘there are those who expect to be toruted and those who dont, one never tortures without mutual agreement’.  For the brutatity of Castro’s regime read Reinaldo Arenas’ ‘Before Night Falls’.

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We bought tickets to the ballet at Gran Teatro de la Habana, and worrying whether the the ancient van would get us there on time was not the only bad start.  Half of the people went in and to the other half of which I was one, Rita said ‘we have a problem’.  The problem was that they didnt have our tickets at the desk, someone suggested we simply go the following night.  This possible solution was not addressed.  After we were lead into a rubbish strewn side street were we caught the attention of one of the (few) town crazies it became apparent that the plan was to have one of the make up artists meet us at the stage door and usher us through narrow corridors full of tutu and tight-clad performers while Rita hissed ‘quickly!, quickly!’.  I dont think it would be terribly cynical of me to assume that half of the (30 CUC or $30)tickets were not bought.

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The ballet was exquisite and I recognised some of the elegant and beautiful dancers I had seen walking around the old town (and in the audience the girl I wrote about in ‘Treat Me Like a Princess).

Ballerinas

Alicia Alonso Cuba’s Prima ballerina assoluta  said  “The Cuban style comes from deep within the Cuban spirit, from our joys and from our sadness,’‘ Alonso says. “Some people are turned inward. The Cubans are always out, sensual. The Cuban ballet style comes from me, from my way of projecting my whole being. ‘What looks natural on the Soviets,’ she says, ‘would have looked mimetic, like a mannerism on us. We had a hard time explaining that to our Soviet friends.’  Many Cuban danseurs and danseuses, just like their Russian counterparts have defected whilst on tour.

Ava Gardner Swam Naked

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Ava Gardner image courtesey of freeclassicimages.com

Ava Gardner swam naked in Ernest Hemmingway’s pool, she was a regular guest at Papa’s house in Cuba.  And, legend has it his wife, in a fit of pique, removed Ava’s clothes from the poolside one day.  Her dip was extended only momentarily one would think, until she had hailed one of the help to bring her more towels.  Or maybe she just walked, splendidly up the garden path.
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The big white hunter and Nobel prize winner Ernest Hemingway is up there along with Fidel and Ernesto on Havana’s A list of tourist attractions.   Hordes of visitors flock to his house in the suburbs more than fifty years after his death by his own hand in 1961.  In fine weather they can see his typewriter where he always stood to write, his drinks cabinet, his bed and his trophies.  Bequeathed by him to be used as an a educational centre it was reopened as a museum in 2007 when it became apparent that nothing would be preserved unless it was protected. On fine days visitors can peer in through windows that are closed during inclement weather.  It’s sprawling but not flamboyant and a sanctuary for the descendants of his many beloved cats and dogs for which there is a touching cemetery.

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Back in town, above the door of the Bodeguita del Medio, hangs a stained sign which reads ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita. Ernest Hemingway’  and the tourists congregate to drink the overpriced drinks.  The food is standard fare but the vegetarians among us had fried bananas along with the black beans and rice and  the walls are lined with interesting photographs and the atmosphere is lively.

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I read and relished his spare and powerful prose avidly a long time ago.  It solicited the heat of the sun and love, passion without discussion.  His house is a animal sanctuary and has a dog cemetery and this love of canines and felines is as always hard to reconcile with his hunting of big game.  For Hemingway and many others wild beasts are there to be conquered, or shot and stuffed.  And of course he liked to rip creatures from the sea.   Steven Berkoff wrote a beautiful poem “Big Game Fishing’ as ‘anindictment those who boast of ending the lives of beautiful creatures’. http://www.stevenberkoff.com/poem_big_game_fishing.html
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Dont even think about what’s going on in the kitchen…

Fruit sellers

‘Let’s get two side salads between three of us and share’.. those dreaded words.  I have a little joke, a quip, not funny at all really but a little tool to deflect debate and conversations about extremism over pleasant holiday dinners with carnivores.  Here it goes again, I always say to people that’s ‘okay as long as you dont use your meaty forks.  If we do that lets get some more forks.’  Of course I’d just much rather get my own side salad and not share it and that’s usually what happens after I mention the meaty forks.  I dont eat meat and I dont want to eat tiny pieces of meat left over from people scoffing parts of dead cow or dead fish.  And in Cuba, dont even think about what’s going on in the kitchen.

At the nearby Hotel Nacional, all leafy lawns and shade, a tranquil antidote to the glare of the modern Habana Libre where we whiled away a few afternoons, they offered to take the ham out of the pre made ham and cheese sandwiches when they had run out of the cheese ones.  I declined.
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The fruit at breakfast is amazing but salads at dinner in various restaurants were usually made up of shredded cabbage or pickled cabbage.  The delicious vegetables many of which are grown in organic urban gardens from the markets dont seem to be served to tourists who can pay for expensive meat.
Following Cuba’s 1959 revolution and the United States implementing the biggest trade embargo in history the Soviet bloc was Cuba’s largest trade partner to the tune of 85%.  Following the collapse of Soviet Union in 1989 Cuba could no longer import the chemicals it had been using in agriculture resulting in the world’s largest conversion from ‘traditional’ chemical led farming to organic farming.

 Tomatoes

The group I joined in Havana noted an absence of hangovers in spite of all the late night partying and we put it down to the organic rum.

CarrotsandClaret

‘It sounds absurd, of course. But the headwaiter at the Hotel Nacional said you gave his dog poisoned whisky. Why should you give a dog whisky at all? I don’t understand. Nor does he. He thinks perhaps because it was a German dog. You don’t say anything, Mr Wormold.’  From Graham Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana’

Our Vegetarian in Havana

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To profess vegetarianism in a typical restaurant in Havana is to be met in most instances with ‘omelet?’ and what you will get is the same as everyone else but with an omelet instead of the meat, so typically this would be a small thin well cooked omelet accompanied by rice and beans.  After a while I began to crave broccoli.

In Vedado, the vegetarian stalwart of pizza is delicious in the cafe style formica tabled Trattoria Maraka’s on Calle 0 between Calles 23 and 25, literally around the block from the Habana Libre Hotel and its also delicious a taxi ride away in the old town, served on the elegant piazza in Restaurante La Dominica. I read Graham Greene’s hilarious ‘Our Man in Havana’ while I was there and delighted in visiting the streets of the old town that he mentioned so often.

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But dinner is by no means the only fun to be had at night.  By day Havana is noisy and hot and polluted but the wall around the pool at the Habana Libre, formerly the Havana Hilton before the revolution is an adequate barricade against the noise of the old cars.  One can lie under a canopy drinking pina colladas or too sweet mojitos and look up at the rooms occupied by Fidel, Che et al circa 1959. The rooms there are large and comfortable and modern, afford spectacular views over the city and are drenched in sunlight via the floor to ceiling windows.  But at night the heat and the breeze from the sea are delicious.  Around Las Ramblas in central Havana the pavements throng with brightly dressed locals and live music emanates from every bar. In contrast the old town with its magnificent buildings is elegant and staid and more touristic.

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The people in Havana are very convivial, walking alone will not leave you without conversation.  Some people will ask you a lot of questions and then ask for money, others will just ask you a lot questions, enchanted by the outside world almost impossibly out of reach.

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In his biography ‘Before Night Falls’ Reinaldo Arenas wrote, unhappy in exile after finally making it to the United States ‘The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream.’

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Treat Me Like a Princess

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En route to finding the path across the valley to the town I had come across two small restaurants, in one they told me that they had very good food for vegetarians and served rice and vegetables and wine.  I tried to walk there at night, down a path by the hotel but after five minutes in pitch darkness with neither light nor light pollution the silence of the woods suddenly began to spook me.  They had asked me if I was definitely coming and I told them I didnt know,  in the darkness on the deserted path I realised I probably would have been there only guest as the night time seemed a time to dine in the hotel after all.

Back at reception after my short walk into the woods I felt sorry for two German backpackers arriving on foot after the darkness had descended and to be told that the hotel was full, as were all the others in the area.  I hoped they had a torch and that they managed to catch someone with a casa to rent before everyone went to sleep.

And so after my taxi each way foray into the thoroughly wound down town of Vinales I decided to have dinner in the hotel.  It was a buffet affair which wasnt particularly vegetarian but there were salads and cheeses and bread and fruit and meat free green beans (unlike all the other types of beans so far that had been mixed with flesh) and little cups of wine could be bought from the adjoining bar.  I went at around nine to avoid the same guests who I automatically avoided at my late breakfasts in the full to capacity hotel.

In the evenings the other guests, Germans and Canadians and a smattering of English all suddenly appeared, milling around back from their excursions and most disappeared quite early, not lingering too long in the bar either.  After dinner I sat around the pool with my wine and read by lamplight and listened to the insects and got bitten.

On my last two days in Vinales I stared to slow down and make the time go more slowly, not doing so much and not reading so much but simply sitting, or lounging by the pool and watching the beautiful valley. This watching and deliberate slowing down of time was helped by the black birds of prey circling high above the lines of tiny horses wending their way through the valley and farmers, driving their oxen minutely below.

The beauty of the lush emerald valley and the strange mountains rising up from it sometimes became a backdrop to the characters passing through it. I had positioned my lounger in the shade at the edge of the pool and at the edge of the hill top by a spot where I knew inevitably coach trippers would periodically come to take pictures and smoke and shriek.

One of them, a young flaxen haired woman appeared in front of me.  She was tall and strong and tanned, statuesque and strident in an ecru sundress.  She strode to the step overlooking the valley with a mojito in her hand.  Next came a young man with brown haired grown a half inch out of its crew cut.  He sat down closely beside her on the step where she had sat and he promptly knocked over her mojito.  It crashed and splintered on the concrete and she jumped up.  She was facing me now with her back to the view cursing in her lilting hurdy gurdy tones all the beauty behind her forgotten.

The young man looked crestfallen, the breaking of the glass was a tragedy.  He walked back inside with head held low.  The blond goddess turned around once more, checking her perch for broken glass, revealing a wet patch on her thin cotton dress.  She sat back down and her companion soon brought her another drink.  He gave her the glass as a humble servant might offer refreshment to a Saudi princess and went away to sit on a narrow step close to the bar his demeanour showing as much dejection as one of the sandy stray dogs who occasionally darted past the pool.

After taking a few sips of her cocktail the woman looked back over at him and presently got up and lead him back to the step to sit down next to her, her tones now soothing.  Soon she was standing and he was taking photos of her with the valley behind her and the drink in her hand.  The colour of the liquid matched the colour of her dress and her hair shone in the sunlight.  After the photographs were taken she walked inside and he twas left sipping the last of the mixture around the ice cubes.  There only ever had been a drink for her.

I later saw the princess at the ballet in Havana reminding me of a phenomena I had observed where people who have made some sort of impression although often not actually met make one more appearance in another place, in London even when encountered four thousand miles away, before disappearing again for ever.

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All the Tired Horses in the Sun

One day I took a lazy horse ride along the path behind my cabana, from where the sound of the horses had came on that first morning.  Once a horse mad child, I hadnt ridden for a long while.  As I expected the poor horses were quite thin and their tack was tatty.  The people are poor and the horses are poor.  The smiling guide asked me if Id ridden before and I told him I had, however, not wanting a spirited mount after such a long break I didnt elaborate.  This didn’t develop into a favourable tactic.  As a result of this short survey I started out at the back with only the expedition leader behind me and there I remained.

I heard the swish of a fresh strong twig and felt the flinch of my mount a couple of times before I was somehow compelled out of a cocoon of cowardice and not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ to tell him to stop it.  Of course he didnt like it one bit but immeadiately flung the stick into the countryside and sulked, tantrumesque for the rest of the ride.  He could no longer keep the whole thing going by beating my mount, who would, when whipped, crowd the horse in front in compelling him to go faster.  He had a strategy in ordering his horses and keeping the whole thing going.

The scenery winding through the valley was spectacular.  I had chosen to go at four o clock to avoid the mad dogs and midday sun and the late afternoon had a dreamy sun drenched and shadowed quality and the only sounds were the sounds of the horses hooves and the man behind me occasionally shouting ‘Rosella!’ at a apparently troublesome mare.  We meandered through the narrow gullies in the fertile red soil.

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I had just about cleared the first (metaphorical) hurdle.  My horse was no longer flinching, the man behind me was no longer surreptitiously whipping him and the red soil was blazing spectacularly in the early evening sun.  Then the German woman in front of me decided that she was so relaxed that she needed a cigarette.  I had been enjoying the fresh fresh air in the valley and felt this tainting of it an affront but rather than create the cinemaesque tension that ensues after telling someone to stop talking I decided simply to overtake.  This wasnt simple.  Everytime the I egged my switch freed steed forward the German woman’s horse speeded up.  I retried this manoeuvre a couple of times before it dawned on me that it wasnt the German woman’s reluctance for me to overtake but her horse’s, she wasnt actually doing anything other than sitting back in an almost post coital way and smoking into the cleanest air I had breathed for years.  It dawned on me that the horses always went in this order, her horse was outraged that mine, the obedient one was trying to disrupt the order of things.

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So eventually of course her cigarette was finished and my horse continued to plod nose to tail behind hers on the journey he probably made a couple of times a day like a commuter.  And my mind wandering away from the marvels of the scenery to dwell on the characters of the horses.  Ascribing ‘human’ traits such as the compulsion to keep up one’s place in some sort of social order to beings other than human or to inanimate objects we call anthropormothism.  But humans dont have the monopoly on so called human feelings and traits just as they dont have the monopoly on joy, pain and sadness…

 

Countryside Castrations

The pretty little town in Vinales is easily reached using the hop on hop off open top bus thats stops at various places in the area.  I used it to get in and out of town but also just to sit upstairs for the hour long circuitous journey and enjoy the sights along the road with the horses and carts and the oxen.

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During the day the small cafes are wonderful places to watch the town go by.  They serve small cheese heavy vegetable pizzas some of which have viandas on them.  I thought at first that these might be meat due to the similarity to the French ‘viande’  but found out that viandas was a collective term for seasonal tubers such as plantains, yams or cassava.  Im not sure which ones I had, I was just pleased to have established that the small brown pieces on top were vegetables and not meat.  As a vegetarian this was the most exotic choice in town.  They were tasty enough and pleasant to wash down with the local Bucanero beer.

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 The pretty pastel coloured buildings are the backdrop to the brightly coloured 1950s American cars and the local people shopping and balancing cakes on paper plates on their way home.  Tourists and local people sat around the small square and I was entertained by friendly locals waiting for the bus.One night I took a taxi back into town to visit El Estanco, yet another pizza and pasta place recommended in my guide book.  While I was waiting at the hotel for the taxi I was asked if I would also like to book the return journey.  I had declined wanting to keep my options open but when I saw that the town, bustling by day was dark and almost deserted I changed my mind.  The little restaurant is at the far end of the town and the only two other people were nearly finished.  I listened to the sounds of the insect chorus and of the town and surrounding households winding down for the night.  The pizzas were of the same small thick type I had had a the bars in the centre at lunchtime.  They also serve pasta covered in cheese.  There is (imported) wine even in Vinales, but the Cubans are not wine drinkers so there isnt a large selection.

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 One day I went walking in the countryside.  This didnt seem to be recommended without a guide.  I just wanted to enjoy the sights and sounds of the beautful valley at my own pace and on my own.  At a short walk from the hotel I found the national park office and got some directions.  The lush green valley was stunning and after the initial row of little houses I saw no one other than the same friendly farmer driving his oxen this way and that along the narrow paths between the fields.  After a while he pointed me in the right direction for the end of the path which leads through the valley to the town.  As I looked at his spiritless beasts I couldnt get from my mind a passage in Reinaldo Arenas’ ‘Before Night Falls’ in which he described the cruelties of the countryside whilst growing up in Holguin.  He recounted that to castrate bulls their testicles were stretched over an anvil and the connective tissue and tendons were pounded with a hammer until completely destroyed.  He said that one could tell when this had finally been achieved because the animal’s teeth relaxed.

Pink Hotel

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I first woke up to the almost forgotten sound of a cock crowing and a little later to the sounds of horses being led close by.  When I opened the curtains the views of the mountains and the valley were breathtaking.

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All that had been available when I booked had been a junior suite and I seemed to have landed the best room in the house or rather the best room leading away from the house.  It was simple and clean with huge bed and a sofa and a TV (with several Chinese programs since a cultural sharing initiative began between the two countries in 2008) and had the wonderful advantage of being the last one in a row of little chalets, the furthest from the main hotel building.  In front of my veranda, decked with the two obligatory rocking chairs a well kept lawn sloped down to the trees leading to the valley.

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When I eventually went up for breakfast there was no sign of any other guests in this hotel that was supposed to be full.  I later found out that there was a Saga Holidays group and the old folk had gotten up much earlier to go on one of their excursions.  The breezy dining room above the lobby was empty apart from a few staff members wandering in and out and tiny birds swooping in for crumbs left on the uncleared tables.  All around doors opened onto balconies and the panoramic views beyond.  Breakfast at the wonderfully pink Hotel Los Jazmines was fine, chopped guava and papaya and the same fruits juiced along with a selection of others, bread cheese, tomatoes and salads and cakes.  There was a bored looking chef standing by an omelette station and various hot dishes for carnivores.  (A word of caution for vegetarians, all the bean dishes I saw at breakfast in Cuba had some sort of meat in them).

Cuban Dog

After breakfast I went up to the hilltop-perched pool which was peaceful for most of the time apart from, as I had been forewarned by Trip Advisor, the regular coach strip stops when tourists would descend of the area to take photos of the spectacular views and drink pina coladas or mojitos from the bar that flanked it.  Sometimes annoying, these noisy visitors swooping in like the sparrows at breakfast would occasionally provide an interesting distraction.

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