One of many highlights from my recent trip to Cuba was the colonial city of Trinidad . It is a wonderful place just to wander around and explore the maze of cobbled streets that link lively plazas and local markets. When even this seemed a little too energetic, I’d order a take-away mojito from one of the numerous street vendors and sit on the church steps and people watch to my heart’s content!
Founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514 and declared a World Heritage Site in 1988, Trinidad truly feels like stepping back in time. Isolated from the rest of Cuba for many years, the city experienced little developed so kept much of its original charm and lay-out. Today, the city has been wonderfully restored and has the feeling of an open-air museum. Many of the town’s finest buildings are testimony to the wealth of landowners who made their money from the Sugar Mills in the surrounding valley. I found a visit to these Sugar Mills both interesting and poignant. Many of the mills have observation towers that afford excellent views over the fertile plains that were once the centre of the global sugar cane industry. Their purpose, however, was to supervise and watch over the slaves that worked the land and was a timely reminder of the pain and suffering that much of Trinidad’s wealth was built upon.
I found Cuba to be unique, fascinating and thought-provoking and there was no better example than this colonial gem of a city.
Mallet in hand, I griped the reins with one hand moving them up the horses neck, a signal for him to move forwards, at the same time as giving him a good kick. Gringo, my polo pony for the day, sprung into action and the chase was on. Darting and weaving past the other players, little white ball fever had well and truly gripped me, as we sped after the ball trying to get to it first. It was all set up, world class polo pony, other players who also had no idea what they were doing behind us, some of which had never ridden a horse before arriving on the Estancia, and the words of advice from Argentina’s Ladies Polo Playing champion ringing in my ears. As we neared the ball I lowered the mallet lined it up with the ball and swung, I heard the satisfying clunk as the mallet found its mark. Elation filled me as I turned to my team mates expecting to see happiness; I was met instead with cries of “Wrong way!” I had hit the ball towards our goal, but this meant the race was on again and Gringo knew just what to do as we wheeled round to line up the ball once again.
The Polo at Estancia Los Potreros, Córdoba Argentina was something I had been rather nervous about. As a horse rider in the past I had very much been looking forward to the visit to the estancia but having watched many a game of polo I knew how vicious and brutal it could be and wasn’t sure if my rather rusty horse riding skills would stand up to the challenge. However with the expert polo pony Gringo helping me, he even kicked the ball and moved back under me when I lent a bit too far, I was in safe hands. Instead of the terrifying experience I had thought it to be it became the highlight of my entire trip.
Flying from Tortuguero National Park back to San Jose was a real highlight of my recent visit to Costa Rica . Nature Air operate an extensive network of internal flights in Costa Rica and each flight (providing the weather is good) is like a scenic tour in itself.
Tortuguero airstrip is not what you’d normally expect from an airport. Macaws flew overhead and as I left my bag on the tarmac (no check-in and security required here!) I wondered to the beautiful beach that ran along the airstrip to enjoy a make shift game of ‘boules’ with some recently fallen coconuts and dipped my toes in the Caribbean for the final time as I waited for the plane to arrive. Taking off from the Caribbean Coast heading back to the capital, the flight gave fantastic views firstly of Tortuguero’s famous canals, then banana plantations and finally the erupting Turrialba Volcano. A great way to cut travel times but also an enjoyable way to see the country from a different perspective, Costa Rica from the air is highly recommended!
The notorious Patagonian wind blasted dust into my eyes as the setting sun lit up an eerie treeless landscape ahead. I gripped the reins tightly with one hand, my saddle with the other and held on for dear life as we clambered up a steep ridge. As first horse riding experiences go it will take some beating!
My trusty horse was slightly less impressed – he simply trotted on, bouncing me up and down with malicious glee. Near the top we got off (or in some cases fell off) our horses and hiked up to a viewpoint where we huddled together to toast the spectacular sunset with a well-deserved glass of Malbec.
When we returned to the Estancia after dark, we were welcomed with more wine, a roaring fire and a delcious asado (Argentine barbecue) in the ‘Quincho’ with its huge sunken firepit. Just four hours into our stay at Estancia Huechahue (‘Way Cha Way’) we could already understand why so many guests fall in love with the place.
The horses are so well trained that even our group of amateurs were soon at home in the saddle – and mostly managed to stay in it! The Estancia has over 15,000 acres to explore, and as a genuine working farm, guests are encouraged to help (or hinder!) the gauchos round up and lasso the cattle.
It also has access to some of the world’s finest fly fishing rivers, as well as birdwatching, hiking and sightseeing, making it an attractive option for non-riders too. There’s simply no better way to understand the unique appeal of Patagonian life than to spend some time at Estancia Huechahue.
It took around 40 minutes of paddling to cross Picinguaba Bay by kayak. Any effort required was easily outweighed by the views of the idyllic beaches, the bobbing of small fishing boats and the steep densely forested peaks in the distance. Pulling up the kayaks on to Praia de Fazenda, we had this kilometre long beach to ourselves. It was our very own deserted beach for the morning and was ‘I need to pinch myself’ beautiful!!
This was just one of the many unique adventures to be enjoyed between relaxing at the paradisiacal Pousada Picinguaba. Located on a forested coastline half way between Rio and Sao Paulo and within a state park, this nine room property sits above a small traditional fishing village and has the sort of swimming pool that would set any travel magazine editor’s pulse racing. Relaxingly active, my stay here was the perfect authentic reminder of the beauty of nature and simplicity.
Hard to choose a favourite spot in the Galápagos but I think it would be Fernandina Island.
The Galápagos Islands were formed by a “hot spot” that causes the crust above to erupt into volcanoes. Fernandina is the youngest volcanic island and is still active. Because of increased volcanic activity and its relative youth, Fernandina is home to less plant life than some of the other islands.
The only visitor site on Fernandina, Punta Espinoza is a maze of sandy trails through interesting lava flows with large colonies of marine iguanas. As we stepped off the zodiac boats it wasn’t immediately obvious where the iguanas were, but looking more closely I realised rocks don’t usually move! The black iguanas are brilliantly Camouflaged against the black volcanic rocks but once I’d realised …. there were hundreds of them climbing on top of each other, occasionally fighting but often just sitting or allowing others to use them as stepping stones.
The volcanic rock formations on Fernandina are equally impressive, with the lava fields flowing out to sea, creating blow holes and tubes as they cooled.
10 minutes into my bike ride in the world’s driest desert I realised that 1 bottle of water was probably a bit optimistic. Dust was desiccating my already parched throat, and we still had a good 2 hours of desert riding ahead of us. My guide grinned whilst sucking contentedly from his 10-litre Camelbak – ‘No sweat man – I’ll get you another bottle from the car’. A hotel vehicle was trundling along at a respectful distance behind us, prepared for just such guest stupidity.
With fresh water and energy I set off to explore the ‘The Devil’s Canyon’ in Chile’s Atacama desert. The canyon was formed by glaciers which have conveniently carved out a narrow twisting path through the Salt Range mountains, ideal for biking.
It’s pretty flat and easy so you can indulge your cowboy fantasies as the spectacular Western-style scenery glides past. Just watch out for those lurking sand traps and overhanging rocks, or your daydreams could come to a rather abrupt end! At the end of the trail there’s a steep climb (apparently possible on a bike – but not by me!) where you’re rewarded with stunning 360 degree views of the canyon.
Mountain biking is just one of the many active ways you can explore Atacama – others include Hiking, Horseriding & Sandboarding. And for those who prefer a more relaxing holiday you can explore by 4×4, wallow in natural thermal pools, or just gaze up at the stars. So what are you waiting for!
The expanse of rolling countryside surrounding Buenos Aires is scattered with Ranches, or Estancias, where you can experience the iconic Gaucho culture.
On arriving at the Estancia we were greeted by Gauchos dressed in their traditional outfits, offering freshly cooked empanadas and wine. Each Gaucho was in the traditional loose fitting trousers called bombachas, wearing a poncho and carrying a large knife and bolas (three leather bound rocks tied together with approximately three feet long leather straps) in their belts. Typically, a gaucho’s horse is his most valuable possession but there is also often a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) displaying of silver coins on their belts.
During the stay we had a chance of horse-riding like a true cowboy or taking a more sedate carriage ride. Lunch was, in typical style, a barbeque (or asado) washed down with plenty of Malbec. We were treated to a Tango dancing show with live music and afterwards a spectacular display of horsemanship from the Gauchos.
Some Estancias offer accommodation while others cater for day visitors, so you can choose to completely immerse yourself in the gaucho way of life or just dip in for a few hours.
‘Warning: School Zone’ bleeped the GPS of my hire car again as I drove through a small village as part of a two week self-drive trip around Costa Rica. I’d lost count of how many times the GPS had given me similar warnings during that drive and it began to re-enforce to me just how important schools and education are to Costa Rica. Education and conservation really seem key to this stable, forwarding thinking country and Costa Rica’s ‘Ticos’ are rightly proud to have one of the highest literacy rates in the Americas and have over 25% of the country protected by parks and reserves. It is also a safe, peaceful country reflected by the fact it has not had an army since 1949.
And what better way to discover this beautiful country than hiring a car and taking to the roads. A four-wheel drive vehicle, full cover insurance and a GPS are recommended and, away from San José, roads are quiet and mostly in good condition. For me the freedom to explore at my own pace made for a really memorable adventure!
During a transfer from the beautiful UNESCO heritage site of Antigua, the 16th century former capital of Guatemala, to Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands we stopped at Iximche for a tour of this fascinating site. The Mayan archaeological site of Iximche was declared a Guatemalan National Monument in the 1960s. Walking around in the spring sunshine (late October) the area includes excavated areas and moulds of earth which haven’t yet revealed their contents. Towards the back of the site is a lesser known (to visitors) yet extremely important Maya spiritual, ceremony site.
We were met by a local Shaman who was absorbed in arranging candles of various colours into a large circle. He then performed an authentic Maya ceremony in a local Maya language encouraging each of us to consider our lives and our hopes for the future. Even the cynics amongst us were moved by the spectacle of the burning candles, the chanting, the rum and cigars! And it seemed wholly appropriate when the heavens opened right on cue at the end of the ceremony.