Hunting penguins

We signed up to the boat trip on the promise of penguins. Humbolt penguins to be exact. Who doesn’t love penguins? They are a ridiculously cute breed of bird. So a boat trip around the Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humbolt – a marine reserve just off the coast of Chile – sounded like a fantastic day.

We started out early, picked up from our hostel in La Serena, and spent the best part of the morning driving to Los Choros, a tiny fishing village where brightly coloured boats lined the shore. After negotiating our way from the jetty to the boat – which was being pushed every which wave by the rising tide – we were off. I was very excited at the idea that I would soon be seeing penguins.

As we approached the first island – Isla de Chanaral – our guide was cheerily giving us a basic lesson in biology, listing the animals and birds that could be found here. I was scanning the waters for the playful birds, but found none. Where were they?

We drew closer to the island, into a small cove, where we had our first animal sighting of the day – sea lions. They weren’t hard to spot, there were hundreds of these beasts lying prostrate on the rocks in the sunshine. A few of them eyed us suspiciously as we cruised by, and one or two roused themselves enough to bark a warning at us.

The next cove contained birdlife – cormorants and boobies (feel free to snigger childishly at that name, I do every time). Again they were interesting, but again they they were not penguins. I was starting to get quite anxious.

“Look there, a penguin!”

I turned my head in the direction our guide was excitedly pointing, and there on the distant shoreline, standing on a rock was a fuzzy grey blob.

“Donde?” I ask. Where?

“There, there,” said our guide. “You can make him out because his stomach is white.”

They steered the boat closer to the island, closer to the grey blob.

I looked again, staring hard and then yes, I saw the white spot, and then I saw him! He was small and greyish and even though I couldn’t make out his face, I am sure it was cute. And then just when I was getting really excited about seeing a penguin in the wild, the little bastard turned his back on me.

I doubt it was personal. But it may as well have been because the instant, he reverted to fuzzy grey blob. Without seeing the white spot on his stomach, I couldn’t distinguish his grey back from the grey rocks around him.

“That’s how they camouflage themselves,” our guide explained helpfully.

My short-sghted eyes stood no chance of against this highly-evolved back-turning camouflage technique; he was gone. My Humbolt penguin had humbly bolted, and I was left feeling just a little let down. Where were the hundreds of boisterous penguins tap-dancing on the shore? Why weren’t they waving and beckoning us over? I wanted Happy Feet and all I got was a shy fella who didn’t want a bar of us.

Ten minutes later, however, we did see two curious sea otters who made up for the lack of penguins. They were cute, really cute, and they swam around the boat once or twice before clamouring behind a rock and them playing peek-a-boo with us.

Shortly after we pulled up to the second island, Isla de Damas, the one island within the marine reserve that we were actually allowed to walk on. The waters were every shade of blue, and the beaches were marvellously untouched. We wandered all over the island, following sandy paths to vantage points where we could sit and watch the waves crash on rocks. A – ever the surfer – was giving me an appraisal of the waves. I was still looking for penguins. Unfortunately none came out of the water to wave at me.

On the way back to the boat I told A of my minor disappointment.

“What were you expecting?” he asked.

Oh I don’t know. Hundreds and hundreds of smiling penguins tumbling and diving all around us? And maybe a penguin shooting itself out of the water, landing it the boat and giving me a high-five with it’s flipper? (Okay, no, I didn’t expect that. But how unreal would that have been!)

“Well, when you think about it, penguins are wild animals. Wild animals that don’t like humans and that can swim away as soon as they hear a boat. It kind of makes sense we didn’t see many.”

Damn you logic. Damn you Happy Feet.

Guess I should just be grateful for the fuzzy blob who was either brave enough, deaf enough or stupid enough to stay put.

Still, he could have waved.

Cuba…well it’s complicated…

Where to start? Where to start? To wax lyrical about the splendour of Cuba would be to underestimate the level frustration and general annoyance I felt on a daily basis fending off the touts in Havana. To write it off as a country full of nothing more than con-men would be to underestimate the delight I felt while dancing at the salsa bars, hiking through the forests or swimming at the beaches. I guess the most honest description would be to say Cuba is an astonishingly beautiful country, but you need patience and a sense of humour to travel there.

Havana is a wonderful place to explore. It’s in a state of elegant decay, with its grand buildings plainly showing the toll of time. But there is still beauty to be found here, mostly down the side streets and alleyways of Old Havana. Here there is a litany of bars, art galleries, museums and restaurants where you can happily lose days. I took great delight in knocking back $3 mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio the same bar frequented by one Ernest Hemmingway. I was hoping that by some feat of time-travelling osmosis, some of his literary genuis may have rubbed off on me. But so far, it seems not.

The other Havana highlight for me was the elegantly quirky Playing Card Museum, where more than 2000 cards are displayed. Decks decorated in all kinds of manner were pinned up around the rooms – my favourite being the pack that was adorned with 1980s pop idols. George Michael never looked so good.

And of course there were the cars. The grand old 1950s American cars that patrol the streets are a tourist attraction within themselves. They look fantastic, to the point where even a reserved person like myself couldn’t help but drape oneself across them and pose for photographs. The cars have been maintained well, on the outside at least, with bright paint-jobs that have usually been polished to a high gleam. Driving down the highways in of these babies to the beach was pure joy.

But while the city was bustling, it was also exhausting. With every Cuban now after the tourist currency – convertible peso – it feels like everyone is after your money. You can’t walk 10 metres in Havana without someone trying to offer you a taxi, a horse-ride, cigars or food. There are also plenty of scams about. Cubans will “befriend” you in the street, try and convince you to go along to a “salsa festival” or a “cigar festival”, in the hope of getting you to set foot in their friend’s bar, shop or restaurant. We learned the hard way that if you do set foot in these places, you’ll end up paying for it, either in massive service charges, or commissions. We also heard stories of extra drinks being placed on bills. In the end, every time a Cuban approached me I instantly assumed I was about to be taken for a ride, and almost always tried to politely fob them off instead of listening to them. Which was actually a little sad. But I know I’m not the only one who felt this way.

Out of Havana there were much less touts, which is why I enjoyed Trinidad and Viñales so much more. Trinidad – or at least the centre of it – was like a town preserved in time. The cobblestone streets were lined with gorgeous colonial houses in pinks, blues and yellows, which made strolling through the place a great way to spend time.

My favourite place here was the Casa de la Musica, a small bar on the steps of the town square that played salsa all afternoon. In the evenings it was the place to be, a place where locals showed the crowds of tourists just how salsa was done. I was told by one local that “Salsa is in the blood of Cubans”. Standing here, watching the locals step and twirl with the music, I could well believe it. They were fantastic to watch. After a few mojitos I was happy to give the salsa a try, and found though I wasn’t entirely incompetent, I certainly could not swing my hips like the Cubans. And yet they made it look so easy!

What did surprise me about Cuba was the natural beauty of the place. I had heard much about the bars and jazz clubs of Cuba, but nothing about the beaches and national parks. The beaches were the perfect stereotype of a Caribbean beach. Long stretches of soft white sands lined with palm trees, while the sea is best described as tranquil pale blue waters. Fruit and coconut vendors walked the beach, along with the odd pizza vendor. If that didn’t take your fancy, then you only needed walk a few metres to a beach-side bar selling good food and strong mojitos. As I said, the perfect stereotype.

Travelling in Cuba is a unique and beautiful country and I’m so glad I ended up experiencing it. I do think everyone should go at least once, and soon, because there are growing calls for reforms within the country, and I think eventually the Castro regime will have to give some ground. When that happens, I don’t think the Cuba that I saw will continue to exist. Within the next 10 years I’m willing to bet that Havana will have its first McDonalds and probably a Starbucks next door, and the quirks (even the frustrating ones) that make this country what it is will be ironed out.