Caribbean Odyssey − November 2012 to July 2013

Welcome to my blog for 2013. After spending the past four years in Asia and remote parts of the southern hemisphere, I realized that there were quite a few places close to the US that I'd never seen. With the excuse of spending the holidays with my niece and her family in Costa Rica, I bought a one-way ticket to San José and took off.

From the start, this odyssey was pure wandering. I made no plans in advance. I took advantage of last minute travel bargains to hop from country to country and island to island. As always, I traveled with minimal luggage − just a day pack with a change of underwear, a bathing suit, toilet articles, camera, computer, Kindle and passport. With the weather always warm and sunny, who needs more than this?

As I traveled, I posted the following blog . You can read it in chronological order, or you can jump directly to selected countries by clicking on the map below. The pictures and the text tell the story about my journey through many beautiful and friendly places. But you'll never really know until you go there. I especially recommend Cuba, Trinidad and the Grenadines.

December 27, 2012 − Christmas in Costa Rica

Welcome to my blog for 2013. This journey starts in Costa Rica.

About a month ago, I flew from DCA to SJO, got a great meal in Alajuela and a good night's sleep at Charly's Place. The next day I rode a MUSOC bus to San Isidro, and then taxied 20 km up the slopes of Cerro Chirripó to a paradise called Finca Mia.

Alajuela, Costa Rica

San Isidro at Christmas

From the slopes of Cerro Chirripó

Where is here?

At 1500 meters elevation, this is a cool rain forest filled with remarkable plants and animals. The sparkling streams are perfect for swimming. This lovely spot seemed to be a safe retreat in case the world ended on 12/21/12. Ha!

Of course, the real reason for being in Costa Rica for Christmas is to be with family. My niece Anna and her family have made their home here for almost a year. So, my son, my sister, my nephew and I all joined them for the holidays. The beautiful scenery, the comfortable weather, the healthy environs, the eclectic ex-pat community, the generous Ticos, and the excellent management make Finca Mia a fabulous place to visit for a week ... or a few months. Highly recommended!

Josiah, Anna, Sarah, Mason, me, Dan
Sasha (in front)

Our band of minstrels
and entertainers

Feliz Navidad
Prospero Año y Felicidad

There's no telling where my travels will take me next. The only sure thing is that this blog will be updated from time to time. So, please keep reading. And have a Happy New Year!

January 9, 2013 − Chirripó National Park

Costa Rica is famous for its biodiversity. A good place to find this diversity is in Chirripó National Park. There are four distinct ecosystems on the ascent from the lush jungles at the bottom, to the alpine tundra at the peaks.

Start of the trail, 1500 m

Bromeliads everywhere

Cloud forest, 2500 m

Wild orchids

Chirripó N.P. is big with an area of almost 500 square kilometers. The park is isolated. The only way into the park is a steep 13 km trail. The park is undeveloped. There are no roads. The only structure in the park is the refugio where everyone sleeps overnight. Once you're in the park, you'll have the trails almost to yourself because the park service limits hiking permits to about 40 per day. And the views are breathtaking. From the top of Cerro Chirripó, you can see the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Near the tree line, 3000 m

Lizard in the sunshine

Cerro Crestone

Above the clouds

Costa Rica is beautiful all year round, but this hike is best in January or February − just after the rainy season, when the foliage is lush and green, and the flowers are all in bloom. I've been told that overnight permits can be purchased on-line a few months in advance. Or you can do what I did: Camp out at the park HQ in San Gerardo and be first in line for one of the 10 permits sold at the gate every morning.

View from Cerro Ventisqueres

View from Cerro Chirripó

Cerro Chirripó, 3820m

Be prepared to make this a 3-day, 2-night adventure. This gives ample time to explore the high country and to climb a few peaks. To make things easy for yourself, stay with the wonderful folks at Finca Mia. The trailhead to Chirripó N.P. is right out their front gate.

January 25, 2013 − Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua

This is my first visit to Nicaragua ... and I'm impressed. My nephew and I left Finca Mia ten days ago. We met up with my son in San Jose. From there, a comfortable 5-hour bus ride north brought us to Rivas, Nicaragua, on the west shore of Lake Nicaragua. From the dock at San Jorge, we took a ferry to Isla Ometepe.

Volcán Concepción (1610m)

Ometepe ferry

Ometepe bus

A banana boat

Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America − almost half the size of Lake Ontario. In the middle of this lake, there's a pair of mile-high volcanoes, making Isla Ometepe the world's largest volcanic island in a freshwater lake. Perfectly symmetrical Volcán Concepción is breathtakingly beautiful at sunrise and sunset. Volcán Concepción is also fairly active, having last erupted in 2010.

Beach in front of Hotel Istiam

Hiking with Dan & Mason

Cloud forest at 1200m


Isla Ometepe is scenic, rustic and relaxing. Transportation services are limited. There's no airport ... yet. We got around the island by bus, by horse, by bicycle, by kayak and (mostly) by foot. Food and lodging are inexpensive. The people who live here are honest and friendly.

Thirsty horses

Riding on the beach

Kayaking on the lake

Easy bird watching

Isla Ometepe is a naturalist's delight, with birds, monkeys and lizards everywhere. Both volcanoes feature cloud forests. The trail to the top of Volcán Madera (1394m) is rocky and muddy, but you'll be rewarded at the top by the mysterious lake that's formed in its caldera.

Monkey Island

El Ojo de Agua

Dan & Mason entertaining fellow travelers

Before coming to Ometepe, I made no plans or reservations. Yet I had no trouble finding three charming and memorable places to stay, all located on the isthmus between the two volcanoes.

Ometepe Island gets an A+ for exotic landscape, low prices, relaxing atmosphere and friendly people. For more information, here's the official Travel Guide to Isla Ometepe.

February 10, 2013 − Granada, Nicaragua

Twice a week, there's a ferry from Isla Ometepe to Granada, a city of about 100,000 on the northeast shore of Lago de Nicaragua. Founded by the Spanish in 1524, Granada is a treasure of restored colonial buildings, elegant churches, charming streets, friendly people, and great places to eat, drink and sleep. Granada is a gem, surrounded by spectacular scenery − just the sort of place one might hope to find on a tour of Central America.

Granada, Nicaragua

Parque Central

Calle La Calzada

My street

In the center of town, there's a big yellow cathedral with terracotta tiles that sparkle in the morning sunshine. The cathedral watches over horse-drawn carriages trotting around the Parque Central, where smiling street vendors sell handicrafts, and Nicaraguans relax in the shade sipping tall purple drinks. Fresh breezes from the lake keep the temperatures mild, even on the sunniest days. At day's end, pink clouds gather over the volcano. In the evening, teenagers play soccer and dance in the streets.

Iglesia de La Merced

Iglesia de Xalteva

Iglesia de Guadalupe

Horse-drawn hearse

Granada is a delightful place to stay for a while, so I enrolled in a two week course at APC Spanish School (now known as Spanish Dale!). For $195/week, the school provides 20 hours of excellent one-on-one instruction tailored to your language skills and learning style, plus a homestay with a local family, plus all meals 7 days a week. Classes are held on the second floor of a colonial mansion that faces the town's main square. Dan joined me for the second week of classes. Last Friday, I finished my two-week program. My Spanish is much improved, but why leave Paradise? So I signed up for two more weeks here.

APC Spanish School

The classroom

Mi profesora y nosotros

Mi familia Nicaraguense

As if historic charm weren't enough, within minutes of Granada there's a huge lake, an active volcano, a submerged caldera and 375 islands. Laguna de Apoyo resulted from a Krakatau-type explosion 23,000 years ago. Today, it's the best swimming and sailing in Nicaragua. Volcán Mombacho (elev.1345m) hasn't killed anyone since 1570, but it's an exciting trip to the top to see the lush cloud forest and enjoy breathtaking views of Granada and the lake below.

Laguna de Apoyo

Great day for a sail

In the cloud forest

The view from Volcán Mombacho

Las Isletas are 375 basalt outcrops adjacent to Granada's ferry dock. These islands were created 10,000 years ago by an eruption from Mombacho. Today, Las Isletas are covered with lush vegetation, and are full of birds, monkeys and the vacation homes of Nicaragua's rich and famous. You can buy one of these islands, complete four-bedroom villa and swimming pool, for about $400,000. I'm not ready to buy an island in Nicaragua yet, but $20 bought two tasty lunches and a nice view.

Las Isletas

A home in Las Isletas

The shore of Lago Nicaragua

Fresh fish for lunch

Finally, here's the bad news about Granada. Because it's paradise at a bargain, it'll soon be discovered. Though there aren't many tourists here, word will spread that Nicaragua − and Granada especially − is wonderful. I've seen North American real estate agents taking videos of Granada's beautiful colonial homes, many of which are for sale. Five years from now, Nicaragua may become "too popular". If you'd like to see one of Central America's unspoiled destinations, visit Granada soon.

February 21, 2013 − Granada, Nicaragua                  

Hace un mes que llegué in Granada. Es inusual para mi estar en un lugar tan largo tiempo. Como puedes leer estuve aprediendo español aquí. Todavia no puedo hablarlo fácilmente, recientemente cuando estuve hablando con dos turistas alemanes, ellos pensaron que yo era nicaragüense.

Mi maestra de español − Gloria

School buses recycled into public transit

Cathedral in twilight

A mi me gusta mucho Granada. Es un pueblo hermoso, lleno de edificios clásicos. La gente es siempre amable. Encontré nuevos amigos aquí. Y una cerveza vale un dólar. Febrero es uno de los mejores meses para estar aquí. Es verano ahora y el tiempo es perfecto cada dia. También, hay un Festival Internacional de Poesía esta semana.

Una bailarína

Unos bailarínes

Poetry in the street

The audience

Anoche, me senté en el Parque Central debajo de la luna y las estrellas y escuché dos horas de poemas, leidos por los mismos autores. La gente estuvo encantada por los poemas en francés, alemán, italiano, inglés, ruso, sueco, hebreo, árabe, chino, japonés, y por supuesto español. Fue maravilloso escuchar tantos idiomas sobre una tarina unica. La noche terminó con un concierto de Carlos Mejia Goday, quien cantó las canciones revolucionarias. Todos cantaron juntos con él.

Dancing in the streets

More dancing

Dancing all day

Poetry in the plaza

Hoy, hubo un desfile por las calles de Granada, con música, bailarínes y bailarínas con disfrazes coloridos. En cada esquina, el desfile y la música pararon. Entonces, un poeta − tal vez de Dakar, Delhi o Detroit − leyó un poema a la gente. Que buen método para llevar la poesía a la gente y dar vida a la literatura.

The old fort in Masaya

For sale inside the fort

Lake Masaya and Volcán Masaya

Volcán Masaya crater

Mañana será mi último diá en este maravilloso lugar. Voy subir al volcan Masaya que estabe activo recientamente. No quiero irme este pueblo, pero tengo ganas de ver otros lugares. El Sábado, voy por el sur. Hay un barco a Panamá el que quiero tomar.

March 10, 2013 − Panama to Colombia

Travel from Nicaragua south to Panama City, with a stopover in Costa Rica to see friends and family at Finca Mia, took six buses, two taxis and three days. Buses in Central America aren't fast, but they're comfortable, efficient and inexpensive. Good books help pass the time. Even better is to be seated next to someone who's willing to chat and let me practice speaking the Spanish that I (supposedly!) learned in Nicaragua.

Panama City

The cathedral

Public transportation

Typical housing

In Panama City, I spent two days walking around the old city, going to museums and relaxing in outdoor cafes. Lonely Planet compares this city with Miami, except that more people speak English here. At dawn on 28 February, I climbed into a 4x4 with six other adventurers and drove north to the Caribbean coast. From a dock in the middle of the nowhere, we got into a launch − with lifejackets firmly secured − and were shuttled out to a 43' yacht which would be our home and transportation to Colombia.

Sailing to Colombia

A San Blas island

Gorgeous beaches

Nice reefs

There are about 365 islands in the San Blas archipelago − one for every day of the year, they say. They're part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala, a narrow, 140-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline and home to the indigenous Kuna people. The Kuna have lived in this part of eastern Panama for more than 200 years. Today they number around 70,000 − about half of whom live on the islands or along the mountainous coast. The remaining Kuna live in Panama City and are easy to spot by their colorful embroidery and beadwork. The Kuna manage their province with minimal interference from the national government and were the first indigenous group in Latin America to gain such independence. Because of this, they're often considered a unique success story for indigenous communities in the western hemisphere.

Great snorkeling

Kuna huts

Traditional embroidery

Three generations

From the San Blas Islands, 36 hours of open-water sailing brought us to the historic, colonial city of Cartagena. Spain controlled this strategic port for three centuries in spite of its being the target of many invasions and pirate raids. In 1741, at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a tiny Spanish force of 6 ships and 3000 soldiers held off a British invasion of 186 ships and 26,300 troops. It's said that, if the British invasion of 1741 had succeeded, Central and South America would be speaking English today. It was a delight to spend three days strolling through the narrow streets and tree-filled plazas of Cartagena's old town soaking up the town's history and cold beer, as pictured here.

From Cartagena, I continued 250km east to Santa Marta, which is another colonial city along Colombia's Caribbean coast. If you ever find yourself in this lovely place, there's a fun hostel here named La Brisa Loca that's well-run and has great staff.

Santa Marta waterfront

Simón Bolívar

Caribbean sunset

Santa Marta skyline

Santa Marta is an hour from Colombia's most popular national park, El Parque Tayrona. I liked this park because getting to my campsite required a 5km hike through lush jungles and along spectacular beaches. Besides being beautiful and primitive, this park is also sacred ground to the Tayrona indigenous people. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, they built significant temple mounds and ceremonial areas which can still be seen today.

En route to my campsite

Cabo San Juan del Guía

A Tayrona native

Una argentina

As with the rest of Colombia, I met few American tourists here. Most of the tourists were from South America. I thoroughly enjoyed Colombia and would like to have spent more time exploring this friendly, colorful country. But Tayrona National Park was my last stop in Colombia before crossing the border into Venezuela. But that'll be another story!

March 16, 2013 − Venezuela and Curaçao

Do you know how Venezuela got its name? When Spanish explorers first arrived here, they found natives living in stilt houses on Lake Maracaibo, traveling from village to village by canoe. Reminded of Venice, Italy, the Spanish named this country Venezuela, meaning "little Venice". And now you know.

Maracaibo used to be a quiet fishing village and beach town on the Caribbean coast. Everything changed in 1922 when oil was discovered here. Since then, Maracaibo's oil fields have been Venezuela's #1 export. Today, this busy city drives the economy and the politics of Venezuela, with amazingly low gas prices: 8 CENTS PER GALLON!

Besides oil, the other thing that Maracaibo is famous for is the Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon which lights up the sky 300 nights per year and looks awesome on youtube videos. I came to Maracaibo to see the lightning, but there wasn't any. Why? According to a local tour guide, the lightning ceased on the night of March 5th, the night that Hugo Chavez died.

Tributes to Chavez

Iglesia de San Francisco

Colonial architecture

El Teatro Baralt

So, instead of seeing lightning shows every night, I've been strolling around this funky, colorful city admiring flower arrangements and memorials to Venezuela's much loved late president. The security forces, who can be a bit intimidating, are now on flower duty. It's a nice use for their talents.

Getting into Venezuela wasn't easy. I came by bus from Colombia. Venezuela's official policy seems to be to discourage tourists − especially Americans. At the border, I had to do a lot of talking (in Spanish, of course) to prove that I had a legitimate reason for visiting Venezuela in the form of an "invitation" from a hotel, as well as an e-ticket out of the country three days later.

Happily, the immigration officers at the border were the only unfriendly people I met in Venezuela. Everyone else I met here was delighted to meet a tourist − especially an American. All the taxi drivers seem to have sisters in Florida, and the ladies at the local deli have a nephew at the University of Oregon. In Maracaibo, folks went out of their way to help me and to talk to me. No one here speaks any English, so this was a great place to practice my Spanish. In the park by the lake, I learned how to ask for a strawberry slushie − and it was delicious.

The official exchange rate is about 6 Bolivars to the dollar. But with Chavez's death, there's uncertainty about the future and the economy. Consequently, black market money traders will pay 24 Bolivars per dollar. At that exchange rate, Venezuela is a travel bargain, cheaper than India or Malawi for similar products and services. I had a hard time spending $60 US in Maracaibo in three days, including my hotel room with private bath, restaurant meals, taxis to and from various locations, plus museum entrance fees.

Maracaibo is a fascinating city with friendly people. Yet, I think I was the only tourist in this city. The clerk at my hotel had never seen an American passport before. It was fun having a whole city to myself. You have to travel a lot to find someplace as far off the beaten path as this city is.

Colorful streets

The view from my hotel

Also part of downtown

The big issue in Maracaibo is pollution. The air quality is okay, thanks to steady on-shore breezes that blow away the smoke from the oil refineries and the auto exhaust. The problem is the lake. It has about 10,000 oil wells, which leak and spill regularly. Consequently, Lake Maracaibo is black. I was interested to see a permanent exhibit at the city's art museum which critiques the environmental impact of Maracaibo's oil industry.

Still, even though this country is politically backward (i.e. corrupt), pollution is a serious problem, the president is dead, and there's uncertainty about the future, I would recommend Venezuela. Maracaibo looks like it hasn't changed for 50 years. Good preparation for Cuba, I think. I hope to come back here again sometime. If so, I'll be sure to come in October, which is said to be the best month to see the Catatumbo lightning.

An artist's statement

The deli ladies

Basílica de Chiquinquirá

Iglesia Santa Barbara

From here, it's a short 30-minute flight to the island nation of Curaçao. Maracaibo and Curaçao are economic partners. Curaçao is the deep-water port from which Maracaibo ships its petroleum. Although these two places are joined economically, they're completely different.

Before becoming Maracaibo's shipping hub, Curaçao was the center of the Dutch West Indies slave trade. In fact, this island has the dubious distinction of hosting the last slave market in the western hemisphere. Today, the island's population is an exotic mix of people from Africa, Europe, Asia and South American. Although English and Spanish are spoken here, the official languages are Dutch and Papiamentu.

Willemstad waterfront

The floating market

Outdoor cafes

Elegant resorts

The biggest difference between Curaçao and Maracaibo is that Curaçao is made for tourists. Americans and Europeans flock to Curaçao's beautiful beaches, elegant resorts, duty-free shopping, and European-style sidewalk cafes. Every day, a different cruise ship is tied up at the mega-dock to disgorge 5000 visitors to this tiny town. I can see why people love this romantic and picturesque destination. I enjoyed the scene for three days. I stayed at the Hotel San Marco & Casino, which has a great location, just behind this first row of buildings on the waterfront.

Evening in downtown Curaçao

Curaçao is the wealthiest island nation in the Caribbean. My next stop will be the poorest nation in the Caribbean − and perhaps in the world.

March 29, 2013 − Hispañola

Hispañola is one island shared by two very different countries. A couple weeks ago, I flew from Curaçao to Port-au-Prince, where I met my brother John at the airport. It was a happy reunion. As we left the airport, it was obvious that Haiti wasn't going to be the typical Caribbean vacation destination.

Haiti has not yet recovered from the 7.0 Mw earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince January 12, 2010. Adding insult to injury, Hurricane Sandy caused flooding and blew away many of the tent cities last October. There's very little infrastructure left in this country. With traffic and rough roads, it took 3 hours to drive 150 km to Gonaives.

Rubble and garbage everywhere

The remains of the cathedral

The grocery store

Where business is done

According to one study, Haiti is the poorest country in the world. Half of Haiti’s population lives on less than $1 a day, while about 80% of the country lives on less than $2 a day. The country’s estimated unemployment rate as of 2010 was 40.6%. Many of the educated and talented Haitians have left their country to start new lives elsewhere. Without their leadership, rebuilding this country is even harder. Being an island nation, basic stuff like food and clothing are expensive because they have to be shipped or flown in. Haiti seems poorer to me than some of the countries I visited in central Africa, like Malawi or Zimbabwe. Of course, not everyone in Haiti is poor.

Cap Haitian

Typical housing

Where the 0.01% live

Where the 0.01% play

This was my first visit to Haiti and my brother's second. John comes to Haiti because his church in Amherst, MA is helping to build a primary school in a small village called Bayonnais, about 40km east of Gonaives. Bayonnais has no electricity or indoor plumbing. A 4wd is required to get to Bayonnais. The school holds classes in a former goat shed.

The church at Gonaives

School house in Bayonnais

Classroom with a dirt floor

The staff at Bayonnais & John

The school in Bayonnais hopes to move into new classrooms in the next year or so if the money and materials can get there. My role in all of this was to assess building construction methods with respect to seismic engineering. Sadly, the materials at Haitian construction sites are often substandard, and buildings aren't always built according to the intended plans. At least, when the new school building in Bayonnais is complete, the students will have a roof over their heads that probably won't leak.

John and I took time out from our volunteering to visit Haiti's #1 tourist site: La Citadelle Laferrière. Haiti's slaves revolted against their masters in 1804. Anticipating harsh retaliation by the French, Haiti's self-appointed new leader, King Henri Christophe, built one of the largest fortresses ever constructed in the western hemisphere. It took 15 years and about 2000 former slaves to build this massive structure, with walls 40 meters high, batteries for almost 400 cannons, and enough space to house 5000 troops. Needless to say, the fortress was impregnable, so the French never attacked it. The fortress sits today on top of its mountain with its cannons intact and cannonballs stacked in neat pyramids.

The Citadelle

40m high walls

Rooftop batteries

Cannons and cannonballs

Below the fortress is King Henri's Sans-Souci Palace, or what's left of it. It is an empty ruin today, but an impressive one. With its vast gardens, lavish furnishings and beautiful setting, King Henri's intent was to rival Versailles and to make Europe recognize Haiti as a country to be reckoned with. The palace fell into disuse after Henri's death in 1820. After that, earthquakes and civil turmoil took their toll.

The ruins of Sans-Souci

Marble sculpture in a garden

Arches and fountains

Haiti was a challenging adventure. As volunteers, John and I enjoyed the hospitality of a local church. We stayed in a home that had indoor plumbing. We had an interpreter. We were often chauffeured from place to place in a 4wd with A/C. But there were a couple of times when we took "public transportation." The photos below show how most folks get around in Haiti.

Rural transportation

Urban transportation

A tap-tap

A school bus?

A former school bus

After our week together, John flew back to the US and I took a bus from Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo, the capital of the DR (Dominican Republic). The border crossing was no worse than any border crossing in central Africa. After that, it is was smooth sailing through the DR on a paved highway. Yay!

Founded by the Spanish on August 5, 1498, Santo Domingo is officially the oldest European city in the Americas. (The Nicaraguans in Granada will be sorry to hear this.) Santo Domingo is a natural deep-water port on the lee of the island of Hispañola. It was the logical shipping hub and center of operations for the Spanish exploration of the new world. Today, this town has a great vibe, a nicely restored historic center, and lots of places to eat, drink and sleep. After being on the move for weeks, this seemed like a good place to stop and relax for a while − and so I did.

Cathedral of Santa María

The first hospital in the Americas

Where Columbus dined

Columbus slept here

There're plenty of museums and historic sites to visit here. The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, completed in 1540, is the oldest cathedral in the Americas. The Alcázar de Colón was America's first castle and the home of Viceroy of the Indies Don Diego Colón, a son of Christopher Columbus.

Sidewalk cafes on the plaza

Processions and parades

The Hostal Nomadas

Rooftop bar at Nomadas

If you should ever find yourself in Santo Domingo, I highly recommend the Hostal Nomadas. It's budget accommodations with 5-star staff and owners. This was the perfect place to relax and feel at home after weeks of being on the move.

There's lots more of the DR to see besides its capital city. I've been told that the wind surfing and the whale watching on the north coast are fabulous. The south coast has beautiful white-sand beaches. But I'll have to come back to the DR again someday, because I'm leaving for Cuba tonight.

May 5, 2013 − Cuba

Getting into Cuba is easy − although US citizens have to deal with minor inconveniences:

  • Americans traveling to Cuba are supposed to obtain a travel license (for cultural, humanitarian or educational purposes) from the US Department of the Treasury. I didn't bother getting a license. I simply bought my ticket with Cubana Air at a travel agent in the Dominican Republic. Done.
  • Americans need to buy a Cuban tourist card for $20. When I entered Cuba, my card was stamped instead of my passport. Quick and easy.
  • American ATM cards, credit cards, and dollars don't work in Cuba. So, I used ATMs in the DR to withdraw pesos which I converted to euros in Santo Domingo. Problem solved.
  • When you enter Cuba or if you extend your visa, you might be asked to prove that you have health insurance − and it can't be with a US-based company. So, buy what you need online or through a travel agent. Or be prepared to negotiate.
  • Don't do any online banking while in Cuba. If you do, your bank will identify your IP address as coming from Cuba, and may freeze your accounts until you can prove that you're no longer in Cuba. Lesson learned.
Other than that, travel to Cuba is no different than travel to most other countries. At Cuban immigration, I was greeted with a big smile and a "Bienvenido a Cuba!"

After more than 5 weeks in Cuba, there's too much to say about this amazing and colorful country to put it all into one page. So, each of the places I visited has its own chapter. For photos and stories, click on any of the cities to the right or the numbers in the map below.

1 − Santiago
2 − Baracoa
3 − Camagüey
4 − Trinidad
5 − Cienfuegos
6 − Playa Girón
7 − Varadero
8 − Viñales
9 − La Habana
Birthplace of Cuban music
Cuba's first town
An Andalusian city
City of antiquity
Pearl of the south
Scuba diving in the Bay of Pigs
Cuba's most popular beach
Friendly tobacco country
Heart & Soul of Cuba

The cars: Cuba is one of the easiest countries I've ever traveled in, thanks to its first class bus service and its hospitality, Other countries should take note. As for transportation, I couldn't help but take photos of the vintage Chevys, Fords, DeSotos, Chryslers and even Edsels. Click here for a slideshow of a few of my favorites.

May 23, 2013 − Jamaica

Leaving Cuba was as easy as getting there. The only problem for Americans is that there are no commercial flights between Cuba and the US. Since I wasn't planning to return to the states anyway, this was not a problem. I'd originally planned to exit Cuba by flying from Havana to Cancun, but Cubana Air charged me only $20 to change my ticket to fly to Nassau instead. Why Nassau? Why not! I'd never been to the Bahamas. Although Nassau has none of the colors, sounds, tastes or culture of Cuba, it has ATMs and free wifi everywhere. Being low on cash and behind in my correspondence, I was happy to spend three days in Nassau. From here, it was a short hop to Jamaica.

Nassau, Bahamas

Downtown Kingston

Fort Charles at Port Royal

Bob Marley museum

Knutsford Express

Kingston doesn't have a very good reputation because of the gangs, the drugs and the violent crime. Most of the city isn't safe at night. But in the daytime, Kingston is a friendly enough place to walk around in. The brick buildings, the Anglican churches, and the statue of Queen Victoria in the central park reminded me that Jamaica was a British colony not long ago. The noisy, crowded markets downtown reminded me of Johannesburg. A couple of interesting sites to see in Kingston are:

  • Port Royal: This historic town − or what's left of it − was once the pirate capital of the Caribbean. In 1692, a major earthquake caused the soft sand under this town to liquefy and subside into the bay. Later Port Royal was the hub of British naval power in the West Indies. Young Horatio Nelson was stationed here from 1778 to 1780.
  • Bob Marley museum: Housed in his former home, this is well worth a visit to get acquainted with Jamaica's most famous native.
Whenever I arrive in a new country, the first challenge is to figure out how the transportation systems work. In Jamaica, there are several options:
  • Express bus: Jamaica has a 1st class bus line called Knutsford Express which connects the five largest cities. The buses have air conditioning, toilets, in-flight movies and wifi. Tickets can be booked online and buses run on time.
  • Route taxis: Jamaica has an efficient system of privately owned cars and mini-vans that shuttle folks back and forth between towns. The fares are set by the government. Although the route taxis are often crowded, they're very fast and cheap. Sharing a seat with another passenger is a good way to get to know the locals.
  • Taxi: Jamaican taxi drivers charge tourists higher fares than taxis in Tokyo − and you don't get the same white-gloved courteous service. I avoided taxis after one experience.
  • Rental car or bicycle: I didn't try either of these options. Although life in Jamaica is delightfully slow-paced, everything changes when a Jamaican gets into a car. I was surprised not to see more wrecks beside the highways than I did.
  • Walking: This is always the best way to get to know a country. I did as much of this as possible in Jamaica.

The reefs at Ocho Rios

The cliffs at Negril

The beach at Montego Bay
After two days in Kingston, I headed north for Jamaica's best beaches and accommodations. Here are some of the lovely places I stayed, for never more than $50/night.
  • Ocho Rios: Silver Seas Hotel Good base for exploring the parks, waterfalls and mountains of Jamaica's north shore. Big, airy rooms with balconies over the ocean. Large tiled patios for drinks and meals. There's a reef right offshore that makes for great snorkeling.
  • Port Antonio: Demontevin Lodge Hotel Historic building that hasn't changed since it was built in 1881. Queen Elizabeth(s) I & II stayed here in 1923. 1953 and 1968. Great views of the harbor and just two minutes walk from town.
  • Negril (long beach): Negril Yoga Center The gardens are lush and guests get discounts on the already inexpensive massages and yoga classes. Long beach is right across the street.
  • Negril (west end): Blue Cave Castle This fantastic hotel was modeled after the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. But instead of being surrounded by forested mountains, there's turquoise water all around. Rent a mask, snorkel and fins at the bar, descend 20 steps down into a submerged cave, and start swimming with all the fishes.
May is Jamaica's "rainy season". But in reality, the weather was pretty good. Mornings were usually clear and sunny. Noisy thundershowers blew up in the afternoons, followed by cooler evenings. The great thing about visiting Jamaica in May is that this is low season. Reservations aren't necessary and one can get the best rooms at hotels at less than half of the high-season rates.

Port Antonio harbor

Demontevin Lodge Hotel

Cricket by the bay

The Blue Lagoon
Port Antonio was my favorite spot in Jamaica. This sleepy, untouristed town is where one can escape from the hawkers selling everything from overpriced souvenirs to illegal substances and services. Port Antonio is where you can watch an afternoon's cricket match, go for a swim in nearby Blue Lagoon, or just sip a cold beer on the dock while the sun sets. Port Antonio is also where I found the Errol Flynn Marina, known well to international yachters who pass through here on their round-the-world cruises. I met some good folks at the bar whom I may see again. Here's a link to their blog:

But a country isn't just a place − it's the people. Jamaicans are friendly and easy-going. Still I worry about Jamaica's culture and social structure. This island has a lot of spaced out, stoned people − mostly young males − standing around waiting for a hand-out. The drug use, the poor work ethic, and the lack of motivation makes this a very laid-back place. But it doesn't lead to a productive society or stable family life. Bob Marley was a brilliant musician, but I don't see that sort of star appearing here again for a while. Meanwhile, the Jamaicans will survive on tourism, but that's about all that's going to happen here. So, when you come to Jamaica, just relax. Be happy. Every little thing's gonna be all right. No worries, Mon.

June 6, 2013 − Trinidad and Tobago

After two weeks of Jamaica's beautiful beaches, spicy barbecue, non-stop reggae, and aggressive street-vendors, it was time to leave the haze of ganja smoke and go someplace new. The easiest and cheapest ticket out of Montego Bay was to Port of Spain (Caribbean Air's hub). So, I bought a one-way ticket and started reading up on Trinidad & Tobago in my Kindle Lonely Planet guide.

T&T is two very different islands which share a common government, climate, currency and language. Trinidad is 20 times larger than Tobago in both area and population. Consequently, commerce and festivals happen in Trinidad, while Tobago is a quiet place to escape to.

Unlike the other islands of the Caribbean, T&T has substantial petroleum reserves. So, this is a nation that doesn't have to rely upon tourism for its income. − and gasoline costs $1.60/gal. Although T&T welcomes tourists, there aren't a lot of them here. I made my base at Par-May-La's Inn, a comfortable, centrally-located, Indian-run guest house.

Queen's Royal College

Performing Arts Center

Joe Biden's motorcade

Modern highway system

Port of Spain, the capital of T&T, is a manageable city to see by foot. There are dozens of quaint, historic buildings, as well as startling modern structures, such as the National Academy for the Performing Arts, which resembles a chrome and steel version of the Sydney Opera House. (I'm told that it's supposed to look like the national flower: The hibiscus.) Port of Spain has good museums, busy restaurants, and the world's largest roundabout, with a circumference of 3.5km and an area of 260 acres. Colloquially known as "The Savannah", it's a popular place for jogging in the mornings, cricket matches in the afternoons, and concerts in the evenings.

Everyone I met in Trinidad was friendly, and seemed genuinely interested in talking with a foreigner. In Jamaica, locals hung around bars and restaurants waiting for tourists to buy them dinner or at least a drink. In Trinidad, it was just the opposite. People bought me drinks and dinner in order to ask where I was from and what I thought about their country. From doctors and dock hands to tax attorneys and taxi drivers, I was impressed by the Trinbagonians. They are intelligent, articulate, politically-aware, and well-traveled.

While I was in Port of Spain, there was a heightened political buzz due to the almost simultaneous visits by Joe Biden and China's president, Xi Jinping. By coincidence, I saw both of these gentlemen -- or at least their cars. I waved at both of their motorcades. When the Americans drove by, a tinted window rolled down and a well-manicured hand reached out and waved. No one from Mr. Xi's contingent waved back.

Typical of the political awareness of Trinbagonians, there was much discussion of the US$3 billion that China has proposed to give several Caribbean nations for infrastructure improvements. Trinidad is looking forward to receiving some of this windfall. However, countries that maintain relations with Taiwan, such as Haiti and Belize, will not.

In the highway photo above, note the Indian stupas to the left of the freeway. About 1/3 of Trinidad's population is of East Indian origin. After the British abolished slavery, they recruited East Indians to work on their sugar plantations. The first boatload of Indian indentured servants arrived in Trinidad on May 30, 1845. Today, May 30th is a national holiday known as Arrival Day. Although I missed Trinidad's raucous Carnival (which is in February), I was on hand for the colorful parades, loud music, delicious foods and exciting festivities for this year's Arrival Day.

Deities of the Caribbean

Temple in the Sea

Dattatreya Yoga Center

Hanuman Murti

Carapichaima is the district along the west coast where most of the Indian population lives. Here's where you'll find the serene Temple in the Sea, a vibrant yoga center, and the tallest statue of a Hindu god outside of India. Hanuman Murti is 25m tall. Also worth seeing is the Indian Caribbean museum which chronicles the migration of tens of thousands of Indians to the Caribbean in the 19th century.

Boat hoist at Chaguaramas

Dry-docked for hurricane season

Mt.St.Benedict Monastery

In the northwest corner of Trinidad is Chaguaramas, the largest private boat marina in the Caribbean. Because Trinidad is south of the hurricane belt, this is where hundreds of yachts are dry-docked during hurricane season. By June, all the luxurious boats are buttoned up and tucked away until their owners return in November. In some cases, the owners never return, which makes this an excellent place to buy a used yacht. I did some window shopping here. There were some tempting offers.

Not far from Chaguaramas, on the slopes of the Northern Range, is Mount St.Benedict, home to a couple dozen aging Benedictine monks. There are two reasons to come here: (1) To hike the nature trails to the top of the mountain, from which you can see half of Trinidad. (2) To spend a few relaxing nights at the Pax Guest House, an elegant, colonial guesthouse with great food and charming ambiance. This is one of the loveliest places I've stayed in months.

Bird viewing veranda

Lush rain forest

Torch ginger

Birds of Trinidad

An agouti

If you like bird watching and strolling through lush rain forests, the Asa Wright Nature Center is the place for you. I'm not even a bird watcher and I loved this place. Sipping morning tea or coffee from a veranda perched at the top of the forest canopy while admiring a channel-billed toucan is a nice way to start the day.

After you've spotted several dozen species you've never seen before, let the folks at Asa Wright organize a boat tour for you to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. At sunset, hundreds of Scarlet Ibis roost in the mangrove trees, giving the appearance of being abloom with brilliant red blossoms. Even if you're not a birder, this is an amazing sight to see.

... Tobago

It was hard to pull myself away from Trinidad, but I knew there was more to see. There's a fast Inter-Island Ferry Service that whisks you directly from the wharf in Port of Spain to Tobago for about US$9. The ferry lets you off in the funky little port of Scarborough, whose main sights are the well-preserved Fort King George (the only colonial fortification remaining in Tobago) and the Botanical Gardens, which is a pretty place to duck out of the heat.

Trinidad <−> Tobago ferry

The view from Fort George

Botanical gardens

With Tobago being only 42km long, it's easy to see the whole island in a few days, from Crown Point at the west end to Speyside in the east. I travelled by route taxis, which are inexpensive, fast and a good way to meet the locals. No reservations or tickets required. It's like hitch-hiking. You just put out your hand wait a couple of minutes for a vehicle to stop.

Store Bay, Crown Point

Fresh fish and veggies

Bateaux Bay, Speyside

Since it was my birthday, I pampered myself at two resorts. In Crown Point, I went for the health food, yoga classes and jacuzzis at the Kariwak Village Holistic Haven. In Speyside, I went snorkeling and ocean kayaking at the Blue Waters Inn.

A month ago, I had no idea what Trinidad and Tobago would be like, nor any plans to come here. I'm delighted to have stumbled upon this marvelous island country, which has a lot more to offer than I'd expected. I'll have to come back here again sometime, if only to see the great Leatherback turtles nest and hatch on Trinidad's windswept Atlantic beaches.

June 13, 2013 − Guyana

Two weeks ago, I was in Tobago, surfing airline websites, and wondering where to go next. A search for low fares led me to GEO. Where's that?! GEO is Georgetown, Guyana.

Guyana has never been on my bucket list, and I don't know anyone who's ever been here. But I like to keep an open mind to new experiences. So, I turned to my Kindle Lonely Planet Guide to South America. The first paragraph was intriguing. Guyana's tourist association describes this country as "Conradian" ... as in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That was good enough for me. I booked a one-way ticket.

First complication: There weren't any convenient return flights back from GEO. However, from neighboring Suriname, there were flights to Barbados. I knew nothing about Suriname or how I'd get from Guyana to Suriname, but I booked that ticket, too. When I boarded my flight to Georgetown, I realized why my ticket to GEO was inexpensive. The plane was almost empty.

All this led me to discover two delightful countries, with fascinating, unique sites and almost no tourists.

Georgetown City Hall (1868)

Water Street Plaza

Stabroek Market (1880)

Guyana is about the size of Kansas. But we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Guyana's climate is hot and humid. It's the sort of weather where your clothes feel damp five minutes after you put them on.

Georgetown is Guyana's capital, its financial center and the only city with paved streets − granted, some streets look more like potholes held together by asphalt. Georgetown sits on the banks of the big, muddy Demerara River. The outflow from this river tends to make the nearby Atlantic beaches somewhat unattractive. (photo below)

This is a city where lumber is clearly the cheapest building material. From St.George's Cathedral to City Hall and the Parliament building, every building is built of wood. Many of these structures are quite handsome. Fortunately, there've been no major fires here for a while.

Guyana was a British colony until 1966, so the official language is English. That makes things easy for me. However, Portuguese, Spanish, Hindi, Creole, Akawaio, Macushi, Waiwai, Arawak, Patamona, Warrau, Carib, Wapishana and Arekuna are also spoken here. The population is 43% East Indian, 30% African, 9% Amerindian and 18% mixed. So the food's great. My favorite restaurant had a *hot* fish curry, served by someone who looked and talked just like they do in Mumbai.

Indian Ashram

Manatee Ponds

Georgetown beach

Plants grow everywhere here. In fact, plants grow on plants. Naturally, living among all the leaves and flowers are thousands of species of animals, which don't necessarily stay on the plants. For most of the time that I was in Guyana, there was at least one creature crawling on my body at any given time. Some of them bit me, too. Nothing serious though.

Guyana's wildlife is everywhere. During the daytime, I wandered around town looking at parrots perched on power lines. In the city's botanical garden, there are manatees living in the ornamental ponds. There were geckos in my hotel bathroom. (They kept the cockroach population in check.) At night, I fell asleep either to the thunder of pouring rain or the cacophony of millions of singing frogs.

Georgetown is colorful and entertaining. But the real reason for visiting Guyana is to see the interior. From Georgetown, I organized two adventures. The first adventure was to Kaieteur Falls, which is so deep into the rainforest that the only practical way to get there is by plane.

Roraima Airways

Aerial view of the falls

Kaieteur Falls

Getting a closer view

Golden frog

According to the World Waterfall Database Kaieteur Falls is the 26th most scenic waterfall in the world. Well, I was impressed. With a height of 226m and a flow rate of 660m3/sec, this is the most powerful waterfall I've ever seen. The noise was deafening. The mist was refreshing. The water in the river is the color of Coca-Cola, because of all the organic material leached from the rainforest floor. And concealed among the bromeliads at the top of the falls are tiny golden frogs, unique to Guyana, from which the Amerindians make their poison-tipped arrows.

Kurupukari Crossing

My Amerindian guide

The Essequibo River

Can you find the frog?

My second adventure was to the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development . This eco-center is accessible by road − sort of. To get there requires a 9-hour drive on a dirt track through the jungle followed by a ferry across the Essequibo River. When I boarded the mini-bus in Georgetown, I wondered why there was a chainsaw between the two front seats. I learned why later that night when we came to trees that had fallen across the road. And this is Guyana's only north-south road to Brazil?

I spent a couple of days deep in the rainforest with my Amerindian guides learning about trees, flowers, vines, birds, snakes, lizards, monkeys and insects that I didn't know existed. One morning, I heard a terrible screeching in the trees above me. I looked up and saw a pair of Howler Monkeys defending their territory against a pack of Black Spider Monkeys. There was no actual physical violence but the "argument" went on for about an hour. If I could get a translation in English of what the monkeys were saying to each other, I'm sure it would be unprintable.

The Iwokrama Wilderness is about the size of Rhode Island. Outside its borders, hunting, logging and mining take place. But a reserve like Iwokrama is a good start at preserving a magnificent and unique part of our planet.

June 17, 2013 − Suriname

Next logistical challenge: How to get to Suriname? I'd read conflicting reports about visa requirements for US citizens entering Suriname. The only way to get answers was to visit the Suriname embassy in Georgetown, which turned out to be a 2-story house in a residential neighborhood near the Botanical Gardens. I'd been warned about the embassy's strict dress code, so I wore my jeans and a real shirt − albeit smelling of bug repellant and sweat. Having passed the dress-code requirement, I was allowed by security to walk up to a plexiglass window on the outside of the house. Two ladies inside asked me a few questions about my travel plans. Five minutes and $25 later, I had a 30-day visa. Well, that sure was easy!

The embassy ladies also gave me the phone number of their friend Brian who could get me to Paramaribo for $40. The only question that remained was ... why the dress code?

Although one can fly directly from Georgetown to Paramaribo via Gum Air or Trans Guyana Airways, one can see more of a country from the ground. It's also a lot cheaper. The next morning Brian picked me up at 4:30am, right on schedule. We spent an hour driving around Georgetown's potholes in the dark picking up 9 other passengers. Leaving Georgetown, we drove east along the Atlantic coast, passing through about 100 small farming and fishing communities. Each village had its own welcome sign. Click here to see a list of these distinctive village names which reflect the mostly British history of this country.

At the Guyana-Suriname border, there were the usual customs and immigration formalities, a 30-minute ferry across the wide and sultry Courantyne River, and then a transfer to a new van. As soon as we started driving, I could see that we'd entered a new world. We were on a paved highway with road signs. We crossed bridges made of steel and concrete. Compared to Guyana, Suriname is an affluent 1st world nation.

St.Peter & St.Paul

Chinese temple

Dutch church

Mosque and synagogue

Indian temple

The four things that make Suriname unique and interesting are:

  • Dutch is the primary language.
  • The few tourists that come here are mostly from the Netherlands.
  • Euros are the preferred foreign currency, not US dollars.
  • The population is even more ethnically diverse than Guyana. Suriname is 37% Hindustani, 31% mixed Creole, 15% Javanese, 10% Maroon (escaped slaves), 4% Amerindian and 3% Chinese.

Suriname's capital city (Paramaribo) has Catholic cathedrals, Chinese temples, Protestant churches, Islamic mosques, Jewish synagogues, and Indian ashrams all packed within a few blocks of each other. The mosque and synagogue practically share the same parking lot. Suriname has a healthy sense of tolerance and acceptance.

Classic Paramaribo homes

Lim a Po Straat

Fort Zeelandia

The Palmentuin

With only three days in Suriname, I hung out in Paramaribo and did walking tours around the town. It's a friendly, safe city with an old fort, a couple of museums, interesting architecture, manicured parks, and great bars and restaurants along the river.

Water taxis on the Suriname River

Central market

Fresh fish for sale

American fashion?

The highlight of my visit to Paramaribo was the Sunday morning songbird competition. It's a weekly event in which people − mostly men − engage in peaceful yet secretly cutthroat birdsong competitions on Independence Square. Everyone brings their favorite twatwa (songbird), usually a seed finch purchased from Amerindian people in the interior. The twatwa that sings the most wins.

Birds are paired up. During the 10-minute competitions, independent judges make a mark on a chalk board for each time that a bird sings for more than 3 seconds. The streets around the square are blocked off to vehicles to eliminate external noises. The spectators stand quietly listening to each pair of contestants. With about 100 birds in cages all around the green, it's a delightful Sunday morning concert.

Songbird competition

The judges

One of the contestants

Evidently, these tiny birds are very sensitive and are under a great deal of pressure to perform. In some cases, twatwas have collapsed and died after having been shown up by a competitor. I'm told that a winning bird is expensive. Owners are known to have traded their cars for a bird.

I asked one spectator to explain the sport to me. He said "'Da bird. Dey sing. You get a point. Mas points win. Jus like football." Right, just like football!

June 23, 2013 − Barbados

Barbados and Grenada are two former British colonies. Barbados has the distinction of being the only Caribbean island that didn’t change hands during the colonial period. Both islands became independent from the UK about 40 years ago. Today, they offer beautiful scenery and great tourist facilities. They’re well worth a visit.

These islands are fairly small, about the size of Lana’i in Hawaii. So, they’re easy to get around and explore. Barbados is larger than Grenada, but not by much.

I started with Barbados because it was easy to get to from Suriname. As soon as I got off the plane, I could smell the sea breezes, which were dry (!) compared to the humidity of Suriname. It was also easier to understand the local language. Bejans speak a mixture of British English and Creole. The capital is Bridgetown, a tidy little port town with some old buildings, tourist services, and a statue of Lord Nelson. The nearby beaches and resorts are full of ... well ... people.



M10 Mini-moke

Mahogany forest

Green monkey

I didn’t spend much time in the city or on the busy south coast. I rented a small townhouse in Holetown, on the west coast. After six months of living in hotels and dining in restaurants, it was a delight to have my own kitchen, a porch to sit on, and a washing machine to clean my very dirty clothes. Yay, clean clothes! The place I stayed was a referral from some nice folks I met in Jamaica. Click here to learn more about Barbados rentals or to book your own visit.

I also rented a car, − which was really more like a gasoline-powered golf cart. Having one's own wheels makes it easy to explore some of the jungles and the rugged cliffs of the north end of the island. Especially worth seeing are the ruins and gardens at Farley Hill National Park and the mahogany forest and the somewhat wild animals at the Barbados Wildlife Reserve.

Peaceful west coast

Rugged cliffs on the north coast

Windswept east coast

Sculpted outcrop

If you’re familiar with Mount Gay Rum, then you know that sugar cane is still being grown in Barbados, and that the rum industry is alive and well here. My favorite rum-tasting stop was at a restored 300-year-old plantation and distillery called St.Nicholas Abbey. Nice gardens. Gorgeous antiques. A colorful history of murder, intrigue and sex.

St.Nicholas Abbey

The old distillery

Rum aging in barrels

A flamboyant tree

June 25, 2013 − Grenada

From Barbados, it was a short hop to Grenada via Liat Airlines. The port of St.George is Grenada’s capital and it’s a gem. It’s said to be the prettiest island capital in the Caribbean. I’d agree.

The view from Fort George

The town is built inside the collapsed walls of an ancient volcano. The red tile roofs, the narrow winding streets climbing up the steep hills, the old British fort on the top of the hill with a panorama of the three harbors, the esplanade along the waterfront, the dockside cafes, the fishing boats and yachts anchored in the harbor, and the general absence of tourists make St.George one of my favorite cities on this journey. I stayed at Deyna’s City Inn, which is a clean and tidy little hotel in the middle of the city. I fell asleep at nights listening to the sounds of steel drum bands playing at the end of the street.

The Carenage

Fresh flying fish

British phone booths

Curried lambi wrap

Just a couple of miles north from St.George is an unusual park where I was able to combine two of my favorite activities: Snorkeling and art. Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park is a must see. The photos below aren’t mine. (I don’t have an underwater camera.) Please visit the artist's website to see the really good photos. Or better yet, go to Grenada and do this dive yourself. It’s eerie and magical to see coral-covered statues in turquoise water.

June 28, 2013 − Carriacou

Most people don’t realize that the country of Grenada is actually three islands. It’s probably for this reason that tourists haven’t yet discovered either of the other two islands. The Osprey ferry is a fun and easy way to get to Carriacou and its smaller neighbor Petit Martinique. As you walk off the jetty in Hillsborough, you’ll feel as though you’ve gone back in time. There are no resorts or gift shops here. Just gorgeous beaches, clear blue waters, green rolling hills, a few bars and guest houses, and folks sitting around selling fish and fruits waiting for something to happen. They say that this is what the Caribbean looked like 50 years ago.

Osprey ferry

Hillsborough harbor

A good place for lunch

View from hospital hill

Carriacou is small enough that you can see most of the island with a good pair of walking shoes. One especially lovely beach, Anse La Roche Bay, can only be reached by foot. This is a pristine spot and a protected nature reserve. The only footprints I saw there, besides my own, were the tracks of the turtles who came ashore at night to lay their eggs. Fantastic!

Traditional Windward boats

Anse La Roche Bay

Caribbean twilight

July 9, 2013 − The Grenadines

The Grenadines are about 600 emeralds sprinkled across the turquoise waters of the eastern Caribbean between Grenada and St.Vincent. The tradewinds blow steadily all year long. The water is crystal clear. The reefs provide some of the world's best snorkeling. The islands are full of protected anchorages and gorgeous beaches.

The Lady Di

The galley

The best way to see this sailor's paradise is by boat. So, I rented a 41-foot yacht, named Lady Di, from the highly recommended Barefoot Yacht Charters in St.Vincent. The folks at Barefoot did a fantastic job of coordinating all the details of our adventure, including doing our grocery shopping, ensuring that everything on our boat worked, and providing detailed charts and suggested itineraries.

Liam, Irit & Jason

Jennifer & David

The skipper

Under way!

Five of my favorite people accepted my invitation to sail the Grenadines. With our boat full of fuel, water, fresh foods and fine wines, we set sail for our 9-day tour of the Grenadines. The map above shows our itinerary, with each anchorage numbered.

First mate

Crystal blue waters

Lunch at the Tobago Cays

Mopion Island

Wonderful wildlife

Everywhere we sailed was our new favorite location. It was impossible to say which of these islands was the most scenic, which reef had the best underwater wildlife, which beach had the softest sand, which island had the friendliest people, or where the mangoes were sweetest. And naturally, these photos don't do justice to the incredible turquoise waters. If you'd like to see all the photos, click here.

Going ashore in our dingy

Tony Gibbons Beach, Bequia

Union Island beach

Saline Bay, Mayreau

Half the fun of our adventure was going ashore at every anchorage to buy provisions and meet the locals. Barefoot provided us with an excellent dingy, whose little outboard motor started every time.

Union Island from Mayreau

Fruit stand in Clifton Harbor

Shopping for produce

Fresh fruits & veggies

We were impressed by how far off-the-tourist-track most islands were. Although it's clear that commercial developments are in the future, the Grenadines still feel like an undiscovered paradise. Life here is simple and good.

Union Island

Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau

Friendship Bay, Bequia

Caribbean sunset

In our 9 days of sailing, we were blessed with 8 days of sunshine, calm seas and steady tradewinds. Then, on our final day, tropical storm Chantal blew through the Windward Isles. The rain came down like hail, the winds were uncooperative. the swells were about 2 meters, and visibility occasionally dropped to zero. However, by this point in our journey, we had become well-seasoned and happy sailors. As you can see from the photo to the right, we didn't mind getting wet.

A touch of foul weather

July 13, 2013 − Saint Lucia

After relinquishing the keys to the Lady Di in St.Vincent, I hopped a short flight to St.Lucia. Although the flight to St.Lucia lasted only 20 minutes, the wait time for the flight was 10 hours because LIAT Airlines lived up to their name: Late In All Terminals. Travel is not always fun and easy. In this part of the world, one must adapt to "island time".

I came to St.Lucia out of curiosity. During the 18th century, Britain and France fought hard for this island. Colonial control changed hands 12 times in 100 years. The fortresses are topped with French and British canons. The towns have names like Gros Islet and Vieux Fort, while the streets are named Victoria Street and Calvary Road. Walking around the town of Castries today, you'll hear St.Lucians speaking their own blend of French and English, with a Calypso twist.

View of Gros Islet from Pigeon Island

Rodney Bay beach

Water taxi driver

St.Lucia is yet another lush Caribbean island with golden beaches surrounded by warm, turquoise water. And like many of the other Caribbean nations, St.Lucia is known for its carnival. In St.Vincent, our group witnessed a raucous carnival. (See photos at the bottom of Jason's St.Vincent album.) We heard that St.Lucia had an even better show. The timing was perfect, too, because the carnival in St.Lucia starts the week after Vincy mas, so I was able to go from one carnival to the next without missing a beat, so to speak.

All carnivals involve music, dancing and costumes. St.Lucia's mas was no exception. There was lively entertainment in the streets every night.

St.Lucia's mas has a particular emphasis on costuming. The elaborately-engineered costumes shown here are essentially one-man floats. Muscular dancers are required in order to roll these costumes down the streets on wheels.

The epicenter of St.Lucia's tourist traffic is Rodney Bay, near the town of Gros Islet. I lucked into an exquisite boutique inn here named La Terrasse Inn. Claudia and Thomas have created a French Restaurant that's really first class. Highly recommended!

July 17, 2013 − Puerto Rico

The final stop on my 8-month Caribbean odyssey was Puerto Rico. which is actually American soil, of course. So, when I got off the plane, I thought I was almost home. But when I saw the Puerto Rican flag, I did a double-take. Am I back in Cuba?!

It's easy to confuse the flags of Cuba and Puerto Rico. They're nearly identical. The only difference is that the colors are reversed. Question: Why are these flags similar? Answer: In the 19th century, Cuba and Puerto Rico had close ties and wanted their independence from Spain. In 1895, revolutionary groups from both islands gathered in New York to plan their revolutions and to design their flags. Hence, the similarity.

Do you know which flag is which? Hover your mouse over each flag to see the answer. Or click here for more information about the Puerto Rican flag.

San Juan's city walls

Cruise ships at dock

Looking east from the Fortaleza

The capital of Puerto Rico is San Juan. This is America's oldest city, founded a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. San Juan is also one of America's most colorful and scenic cities. I spent five nights here and loved this town. The old city is a living museum with charming cobblestone streets, historic architecture, impressive fortresses, gorgeous beaches, romantic sidewalk cafes, lively bars and friendly people. It was fun to have a chance to practice my Spanish again. Americans interested in visiting a "foreign country" − but don't want the bother getting a passport − should go to Puerto Rico. I stayed at Posada San Francisco which is clean, well-run, inexpensive and centrally located.

The "Dish"

I took a day trip to the Arecibo Observatory, known to Puerto Ricans as El Radar. This is the world's largest radio telescope. It looks like a spaceship that's landed in a sinkhole in Puerto Rico's karst country − a good setting for a James Bond movie (Goldeneye 1995).

For years, I've taught astronomy students about this research center, and its role in SETI. So, this place was high on my bucket list and a fitting end to my Caribbean odyssey.

View from the visitor center
Epilogue: Last November, I left the states with my passport and a daypack containing camera, Kindle, laptop, change of clothes, and a few toiletries. I didn’t have an itinerary. I bought one-way tickets. I traveled "close to the ground" staying in hostels, guest houses, people’s homes and rarely in hotels. I took public transit and avoided taxis. My goal: To visit new places and meet new people, and to travel in an unhurried sort of way. In all, this 8-month adventure cost about $120/day.
The two highlights of this journey were my six weeks in Cuba living with nine different families, and the 10-day sail through the Grenadines aboard a 41 foot sloop. These two adventures were dreams fulfilled. Yet, every step of this journey was a delight, with friendly people and stunning scenery everywhere.

I’ve been struck by how different each island is from the next. Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba are almost within sight of each other. Yet because there’s little traffic between these islands, their populations have remained isolated from each other. Although the people look similar, their languages, music, food and cultures are completely different. It's the differences that make the world so fascinating.

I’m on my way to Michigan now, to see family. But before the snow flies, I’ll be heading somewhere new. There's still so much to learn.

Rainbow over San Juan
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