Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Barrier Reefed

So we all know that I am never going to be a professional scuba diver (is that a thing?). But I have come to really enjoy snorkeling, even though it took a couple of tries before I got comfortable with it. I might not be able to swim, but I sure can bob around in a life jacket and flipper my way along among fish and coral.

And what better place to snorkel than at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest reef system?As our last unvisited Central American country, Belize made the perfect jumping off point for a nice day of snorkeling.

We bobbed along with the tropical fish as they darted in and out of coral structures of endless color, shapes, and variety. Some wore outlandish, flamboyant colors; others sparkled in massive shifting schools.

Sea turtles cruised along silently, grazing on sea grass here and there. Massive rays hovered along the sandy sea bottom. Nurse sharks cut through water, searching for food, chased by our sinewy, sun-darkened guide, who was seemingly half-fish himself.

Snorkeling, while common, still fills me with awe. It is a glimpse into a world wholly separate from our own, a universe unto itself. Thank goodness I overcame my fear, at least enough to allow me to observe this place from just below the surface.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Viñales: Caballos y Tabaco

Viñales is only hours from Havana, but a world apart. Its lush rolling green hills are dotted with fincas, lines with dirt roads, and sprinkled with massive limestone mogotes. The rich soil and unique microclimate make Viñales home to the world’s best tobacco.

As part of Cuba’s tourist trail, Viñales overflows with casas particulares, a guesthouse-homestay hybrid, restaurants, and tours to the surrounding farms and caves. This provided us with the ideal opportunity to go for a horseback riding tour, my first and last.

For years Win has been trying to get me to go horseback riding, and there have been no shortage of chances to do so. I have always been vehemently opposed, as I find horse to be unpredictable in a way that terrifies me. Now, I know there are plenty of people who absolutely love horses and horseback riding. We all have our things.

But, confronted with the beauty of Viñales and the chance to face a fear and try something new, I agreed (albeit begrudgingly).

As a novice horseback rider, wracked with fear, our Spanish-speaking guide gave us the following instructions once atop the horse: left, right, stop, walk. My small, young horse, not being a car, did not respond to commands as such and promptly freaked out. She panicked, I panicked, she tried to buck me off, lost balance, and fell over, taking me down for the ride.

That’s when I found out that the quickest way to win an argument is to have a horse fall on you. I also learned that Cubans are not wont to take that crybaby bullshit, so I ended up riding a horse (a calmer horse) for the next four hours.

It was four hours of blind fear, riding through gorgeous landscapes, limping around farms and caves, and thinking of ways to combine my scant Spanish skills to ask our guide nicely to slow the hell down. We gained some insight into the tobacco growing process, as well as how communism and farm life interact (hint: 90 percent of the crop goes to the government). 

We also met whatever this creature is.

In the end, I spent the rest of our vacation in various states of limping and healing (partially due to the fact that horses are heavy and partially to the fact of having ridden a horse for that long in general). But now I know that I can get back on the horse, in the most literal way imaginable.