“Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us”
Nature Reserve at Varadero
TheReserva Ecológica Varahicacos protects a 3 km2 remnant of xeromorphic coastal scrub and mangrove at the tip of the 20 km. Hicacos Peninsula. Much of the peninsula, also known as the sun destination ‘Varadero’ to hundreds-of-thousands of international tourists, has been modified to accommodate scores of sprawling, all-inclusive resorts. It is also home to the newly described (2009) Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger reyesi), the only Aristelliger known from Cuba. Dίaz and Hedges (2009) named the species after its discoverer, local biologist and bird guide Ernesto Reyes. (Source : http://northshorenature.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-cuban-lizards.html)
Ernesto works most days as a conservation officer at this nature reserve, which was a short taxi-ride from our hotel, and he was only too happy to include a walk through the reserve at any time during our stay. Andre and I took him up on the offer a few days after Geraldine and I visited Zapata Swamps with Ernesto and were glad we did, as it added another dimension to the Cuban birding experience and a number of lifers to the trip list.
Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us :
Ernesto took us along a few of the paths that run through the wooded part of the Reserve and found a number of forest birds, many of which turned out to be Warblers of various combinations of black, brown, yellow and white. The new ones for our trip list and all lifers for me were :
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler (Interesting name)
All of them were too furtive and quick to get a photo for the record, so I took some photos of the Reserve’s other interesting features instead
Ponds at Varadero Water Treatment Works
For good measure Ernesto took us to the nearby Varadero water treatment works the same day, where we clambered through a gap in the fence and found a number of exciting birds in the network of ponds.
Common Moorhen (for a change, an “ordinary” bird)
Well-satisfied with our “bonus” trip to the Nature Reserve and Water Treatment works, we thanked Ernesto for his wonderful assistance, bade him goodbye and got a taxi back to our hotel, where we continued our lazy existence for the rest of our 11 day stay. When our memorable holiday came to an end, we were taken by bus back to Havana (all part of the package) where we caught the Virgin Atlantic flight back to Gatwick near London, followed by a taxi shuttle (which you can pre-book) to Heathrow for our overnight flight to Johannesburg.
” Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see”
Finding a Bird Guide
While planning our trip to Cuba in early 2011, I searched the internet (well, Google did all the work) for any birding opportunities in the 2 areas we were to visit, namely Havana and Varadero. In the process I came across a reference to Ernesto Reyes, who did bird guiding from the Varadero area, and sent him an email. He soon responded with suggestions and this led to me booking him for a day during our stay at Sol Palmeras resort hotel on the Varadero peninsula.
I looked forward to the chance to do some birding in Cuba, which was likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity in such an exotic location, but wasn’t really sure what to expect. I purchased a Cuba bird guide which I had a good look at before leaving for Cuba, so that I would have an idea of what birds could be found in the various habitats, and this helped a lot.
Our main destination for the day was the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata – the Zapata Swamps National Park, which is located south-east of Havana and south of Varadero where we were staying in a fine resort hotel. The Zapata peninsula is bordered on the east side by the infamous Bay of Pigs, the site of the failed attempt by American-backed forces to invade Cuba back in 1961. Along the way Ernesto had planned stops at various spots to find some of the Cuban specials.
My daughter Geraldine agreed to accompany me and we were ready in the early hours outside the hotel main entrance, breakfast packs in hand, waiting for Ernesto and his driver to collect us. It seems that very few Cubans have driving licences because so few are allowed to own cars and Ernesto, married with kids, was not a driver, although he did take over on some of the back roads and showed us how not to pull away and change gears. Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see.
From Varadero we headed to the southern side of Cuba, passing through small villages on the way, one of which had a main street with more horses and old-fashioned horse-drawn cabs than motor cars
An hour or two later we entered the Zapata National Park area where our first stop was at a forested area alongside the road – we walked a short distance along a wooded path before Ernesto stopped and started pointing out bird species.
This happened a few more times until we reached the Zapata swamps, where we drove to various points then walked further along paths between the waterways, pausing to greet fishermen who were catching supper.
At one point we came across a group of American birders who were touring in a large luxury bus and they immediately called us over to view a very special bird, the Zapata Wren, through their scopes. We were surprised to find Americans in Cuba, knowing of the frosty relationship that exists and sanctions applied by the US on Cuba – apparently they are able to get permission for special trips
Their guide was one Arturo Kirkconnell, who happened to be co-author of the Cuban field guide I had bought, Birds of Cuba and he was kind enough to sign it and write a short message, which made the day extra-special.
Lunchtime with the locals
Ernesto offered a choice of a “Tourist Stop” standard lunch or he could arrange with some local people who, like a growing number of Cubans, have small restaurants in their homes. We chose the latter and it was a very special experience, eating in humble surroundings and served Cuban fare by the family – nice to be able to support them.
One source describes it thus:
The Zapata Swamp is a mosaic of mangrove swamps and freshwater and saltwater marshes that form the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean. The swamp was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1999 and forms a vital preserve for Cuban wildlife, a spawning area for commercially valuable fish, and a crucial wintering territory for millions of migratory birds from North America. More than 900 plant species have been recognized in the swamp, and all but three of the 25 bird species endemic to Cuba breed there
Also a feature of the Zapata Peninsula is the system of caves along the coast, some of which have caved in creating small lakes. We visited one such flooded cave in a small reserve a short distance from the beaches of the Bay of Pigs – the largest flooded cave in Cuba, 70m deep and crystal clear
It was a veritable feast of ‘lifers’ for me – no less than 49 during our one day trip to Zapata National Park and a further 14 in the space of a couple of hours spent at the Varadero Nature Reserve – but it’s not all about numbers, more about the experience of birding in such exotic and amazing locations.
The birds seen included the following – short descriptions are taken direct from my field notes :
Once again, where I was able to get a photo, the quality of the photos is very ordinary due to not having my “birding” lens on the trip (I won’t make that mistake again) so I had to make do with a standard zoom lens.
The forest was not as dense as some I’ve experienced – it was not too difficult to see the birds which Ernesto found. The rock underfoot looked volcanic or could be ancient coral.
Cuban Tody – small round colourful bird with a long thin bill
Yellow-faced Grassquit – male and female pair, small sparrow-like bird
Red-legged Honeycreeper – dark purple plumage, turquoise cap and red legs make it a very distinctive bird. Top of tree
Common Yellow-throated Warbler – the first of many warblers, all in combinations of yellow, black and brown
Stripe-headed Tanager – colourful small bird in the mid-stratum
Cuban Trogon – signature bird for Cuba and their National Bird. Loud call, easily seen, 5 sightings during the day
Great Lizard Cuckoo – secretive, large bird (Coucal size), light brown in colour. I just caught it on camera as it flew off.
More Warblers in quick succession (we would have had no chance of ID-ing them without Ernesto) – Yellow-headed Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Magnolia Warbler. Cuba lies on the migration route between North and South America for many of the Warblers and we happened to be there when many of them are visitors to this Caribbean island.
Northern Parula – another Warbler
Cuban Vireo – looks like our White-eyes, just 2m from us in the tree
Zenaida Dove – forest path, pair on the ground amongst leaf litter
and then, a surprise sighting………..
Barn Swallow – just like home
Zapata Wren – the US visitors were very excited about finding this rare endemic – brownish barred bird with long tail, singing vigorously in the reeds
Indigo Bunting – blue all over, short bill
La Sagra’s Flycatcher – mid stratum, crested appearance
American Redstart – male, mid stratum
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Flying overhead
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird – group of 5 – all black except for orange patches on shoulders, tree tops
Loggerhead Kingbird – large, flycatcher-like, crested appearance, low in branches
Double-crested Cormorant –
Pygmy Owl – much like our Pearl-spotted, similar in size, low in tree next to channel
Northern Waterthrush – mid stratum, most resembles our Prinias
Ernesto stopped at various spots along the way, often at places known to be home to some of the specials. We also stopped at one of the government-run “Tourist Stops” where you can have snacks and meals
Smooth-billed Ani – large, all-black Coucal-like bird – on the way to Zapata
Black-cowled Oriole – ponds near Tourist Stop, top of tree
American Kestrel – roadside pole
Purple Gallinule – ponds near Tourist Stop, walking on lilies
Purple Martin – overhead
West Indian Woodpecker – near Tourist Stop, pecking at nest-hole in Palm tree
Cuban Crow – scavenging in road
Cuban Parrot – near Tourist Stop, top of tree
Great Egret – probably same as Southern African species – ponds near Tourist Stop
Great Blue Heron – ponds near Tourist Stop
Osprey – flying over ponds near Tourist Stop
Red-legged Thrush – dirt road, on ground, wary
Northern Mockingbird – dirt road
Smallest Bird in the World !
The bird we desperately wanted to see, since realising it was a possibility – the amazing Bee Hummingbird – found by Ernesto on a dirt road off the main road. We watched, mesmerized, as it zipped from telephone wires to sparse trees across the road, almost quicker than the eye could follow, looking like a large bumble-bee. Sensational sighting! But I couldn’t get a decent photo…
Open Savannah with many palm trees
Northern Flicker – Woodpecker-like bird in top of palm tree
Fernandina’s Flicker – (just love the name!) Rare endemic in bare palm tree
Roadside Farm with a number of large trees
Killdeer – Lapwing-like, in short grass
Common Ground Dove – open ground
Cuban Parakeet – flock of up to 20 in large fig tree, most flew off at our approach, some returned for viewing and photo opportunities
Lesser Yellowlegs – very much like a Greenshank in size and appearance, yellow legs conspicuous
Little Blue Heron – pair at edge of paddies
Black-necked Stilt – much like our Black-winged Stilt
Crested Caracara – in distant tree – large raptor reminiscent of a Harrier-Hawk
Glossy Ibis – presumably same species as ours, flying overhead
Limpkin – on bank of paddy, large bird, long decurved bill
On the way back to Varadero we passed a country rodeo in progress – looked exciting
Ernesto and the driver dropped us off at the hotel in the evening, after a brief stop at his home in a nearby town to meet his wife and daughter who tried their best to converse in broken English and charmed us in the process.
For days after we reflected on an amazing day spent birding an area that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see and experience for myself. It brought a lesson home to me – when it comes to birding (or anything else that grabs you) one should have no boundaries and take the chances when they arise, there is just so much out there to see and do!
Note : Thanks to Ronald Orenstein for his guidance on a couple of mis-identifications in my photos, now corrected
“We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool”
Getting to Varadero
The bus transfer from Havana to Varadero, where we were to spend the next 11 days in an “All-Inclusive” resort, was uneventful and quite pleasant as it provided a glimpse of the Cuban countryside. Cubans have clearly cottoned on to the opportunities (and hard cash) that tourism brings, which was brought home when we stopped for a refreshment break at a roadside café, where a local band immediately started playing and made it obvious they were looking for some reward. Well, good for them – nothing like a money-making opportunity in a communist state!
The road was not very busy and in good condition and we noticed that there were fewer of the “classics” to be seen and more ordinary cars once we had left Havana.
Along the way I kept a look out for any birds and soon realised that the Turkey Vulture was one of the most common birds, perhaps because they are so obvious due to their large size and habit of flying around in flocks. Apart from them, I spotted a Shiny Cowbird in farmland and a Double-crested Cormorant in the water on the bay side of the Varadero peninsula.
Hotel Sol Palmeras
Our hotel was just one of many big resort hotels strung out along the narrow Varadero peninsula, all of them appearing to be full of tourists from Europe and Canada enjoying the fine warm weather.
We soon got into the swing of things at the hotel, revelling in the “all-inclusive” deal as part of our Virgin Holidays package – we had no experience of this so thought we would end up paying over the top for extras such as special coffees, al a carte meals and beach activities but were very happy to find that ‘all-inclusive’ meant exactly that – great value for money!
We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool before girding our loins for the evening meal in the main buffet restaurant or one of the 5 themed ala carte restaurants.
The only stress was beating the Europeans to the best beach loungers in the morning! As in Havana, we found that staff and residents were amazed when they heard we were from South Africa.
Suffice to say the beach met all our expectations and the photos say it better than I can
We particularly enjoyed the gentle sea which was ideal for just swimming and lazing in the water or the more energetic rides in the paddle boats
Sunset was a magic time on the beach
I had arranged beforehand for a local bird guide to take me to some nearby birding spots, which I did halfway through our stay at the resort – the trip is deserving of a separate post which will follow this one.
What I can mention in this post are some of the interesting birds I found without too much trouble in the hotel gardens, often by standing on the room balcony which overlooked the lush tropical gardens or wandering through the pathways that meandered past the chalets forming part of the complex and the occasional bird spotted from the beach.
90 Percent of what I saw were ‘lifers’ for me so each bird was a real thrill, but none more so than the tiny Cuban Emerald, a species of Hummingbird, which I first spotted feeding on top of a tree with bright red berries and later saw a few times perched on branches in the gardens. The pictures of Hummingbirds in books have always fascinated me but I never imagined seeing them ”live” so this was special.
Others that I came across in the gardens were (with apologies for photo quality – I didn’t have my usual telephoto lens with me) :
Palm Warbler – feeding on the ground
Summer Tanager – an all-red bird active in the upper canopy of the trees
Gray Kingbird – seen frequently, once with a small lizard prey
Greater Antillean Grackle (now there’s an impressive name) – in the gardens and often scrounging scraps at the outdoor restaurant – reminiscent of our starlings. The unusual feature of this bird is its V-shaped tail, which may be unique to this species, giving it the appearance of an old-fashioned jet plane when in flight
Cuban Green Woodpecker – an attractive bird which was busy at a nest hole in a Cocos palm
Cape May Warbler – one of many Warblers seen on the trip, all of which seem to be varying combinations of black, brown and yellow – this one had black streaks on a yellow breast, distinctive brown cheeks and a yellow rump.
Royal Tern – flying low over the shallow turquoise sea, diving occasionally for food. This was a particularly beautiful sight early one morning as the sun was coming up
Brown Pelican – also flying low over the sea
Muscovy Duck – seen on the golf course of an adjoining resort
The ‘Puppy-dog Lizard’ which we saw in Havana was also to be found in the gardens – quite habituated to people
Time to Leave
On the way to the airport I took some photos of ‘plain and ordinary’ Cuban scenes as we passed by
We were sad to leave Cuba after a most memorable trip, our minds full of all the interesting people, places and experiences
“I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below”
It was all our Son-in-law’s fault! No, really.
Andre got invited to a conference in Havana and decided to take Geraldine and the girls along and make a full-blown holiday of it, prompted I think by the fact that they had been to Granada in the West Indies before and Cuba was a Virgin Atlantic package and a 9 hour flight away from their then home in the UK. When Gerda and I heard about it and were invited to join them for the trip, it was quite an exciting thought but at the same time a cause for some apprehension – people from South Africa (ordinary ones outside the government, that is) just didn’t go to Cuba. But we are always up for some mild adventure and so the last week of March 2011 saw us flying to the UK for a short stay with Andre and Geraldine in Stafford in the English Midlands before heading to Gatwick for our flight to Havana.
I have been particularly eager to write about this trip, which was full of surprises and memories and very different from what we had in our minds – that’s the beauty of travel, opening up your mind to what’s out there and getting rid of all the preconceptions that tend to muddle your thoughts.
Apologies for a long post but there’s plenty to tell and show about this interesting city….
Our itinerary included 3 days in Havana, followed by 11 days at a beach resort in Varadero, located on a narrow finger-like peninsula which juts out of the north-western extremity of the island of Cuba. It would have been foolish to go to Cuba and not include some birding, and had found a local bird guide to set up a day trip from the beach resort to some reachable birding areas, but I had no real idea what he would cover and where we would go, knowing that Cuba is a large island – some 1000 kms long – and we would not be able to travel very far in one day. All our flights, accommodation and transfers were part of the Virgin Holidays package from the UK, which was very affordable – in fact we could not have beaten it travelling from SA to any other island resort such as Mauritius, even taking into account the additional cost of flying to the UK first.
This first post in this series covers just the Havana part of the trip, later posts will cover the rest of the trip.
First Impressions of Havana
The flight on Virgin Atlantic was OK as these long-haul flights go – being a daytime flight helped as we didn’t have to face trying to sleep in those hellish seats. Arriving in Havana, there were no hassles getting through passport control etc and finding our bus to take us to our hotel – all part of the Virgin Holidays package, which made our lives easier.
First impression on the way into Havana was that the roads were not very busy and the buildings were either plain and utilitarian or old, ornate and crumbling. The cars on the road included a sprinkling of the American classics from the 1950’s that Cuba is famed for along with other more modern cars.
Our hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, in the older part of the city, looked quite modern and attractive but the surrounding buildings were less so.
Once we got to our upper floor room I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below, with colourful ‘classics’ passing by, interesting looking people hanging about in doorways and the crumbling roofscape turning deep orange as the sun set.
The Classic Cars
It’s proof of human ingenuity that so many of the 1950’s American cars have survived for so long – when you look closely you notice that most have had major transplant surgery with new chassis’, wheels and engines, while the owners have managed to retain the old bodies and chrome trims. Even the hooters have been modified to make a pleasant squeak rather than loud honking. Car ownership is complex in Cuba but the bottom line is ordinary Cubans are not allowed to buy new cars so these old classics are handed down in the family and most if not all serve as taxis for the people. Some are battered, others are well-kept – all are colourful reminders of a simpler era and I could not stop taking photos of these beauties. Here’s a selection of those wonderful Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and others –
Then there are the interesting number plates….. colours denote ownership status with yellow being ‘private’ (but licensed by the all-pervasive ‘Government’), blue is Government owned, orange, brown and black denote levels of government ownership.
With so few cars on the road, traffic is not an issue and only the centre city is relatively busy, but nothing like other major cities. It makes for a relaxed atmosphere in the city which, along with the complete lack of commercialism, creates a feeling of being transported back to the 1950’s or 60’s.
The hard years that Cuba has endured are evident in the state of the buildings in Havana, where the contrast is most stark between those that have been restored or maintained and those left to slowly deteriorate for 60 years or so. Many that we saw have fallen into such ruin that only the skeleton of the façade remains, the roof and inner structures having succumbed to total neglect.
On our walking tour of the city it was clear that restoration has been limited to the main squares, which have been beautifully restored, but walk a block away and the buildings are in a sorry state.
Despite this, the original Spanish-influenced architecture is still very evident – many buildings have internal courtyards to help cool the interiors. Look through once splendid front doors and you see grand staircases leading to the upper floors with elaborate wrought iron balustrades, some almost corroded to nothing.
Ornately carved stone cladding is common but unchecked weathering has worn away the beauty that it once projected.
We found Cubans generally friendly, apart from some waiters who were a bit surly, but then that’s the case wherever you go. Out on the streets it was obvious the people of Havana like to see what’s happening and sitting or standing in doorways seems to be a national sport – many will greet you as you walk past. Wherever we went the locals would ask where we came from and were amazed to hear that we were from South Africa, some even pointing to our skin and querying “but you are white?”
The overall impression is of not much activity amongst the general population and those that had something to do were fairly relaxed about doing it – this may just be the way things are done in this laid-back part of the world.
The Sights of Havana
On our first day in Havana we went for a walk down the main boulevard to the seafront and the promenade which overlooks the bay stretching into the distance one way and the Old Fort in the other direction.
Along the way we admired the classic cars and old buildings and just enjoyed being in such an exotic place. The longish walk and the warm conditions soon had us looking for a place to have lunch and we came across a pleasant restaurant which did the trick with beers and cold drinks to go with a plain but tasty pasta meal.
Later we ventured out again, this time taking some of the ‘back streets’ which took us to a square where we had coffee and viewed the restored church
Next morning it was time for our tour of Havana, which we had arranged just for the six of us. Our personal tour guide for the morning was one friendly and informative Cuban by name of Mora (who happened to be of African origin), previously a professor in English, who chose to become a tour guide because it was more financially rewarding with the tips she earned. She turned out to be an excellent guide taking us variously by kombi taxi, horse-drawn carriage and walking through the streets and squares of Havana – in 30 years of guiding we were the first South Africans she had taken and at the end of the tour she insisted on giving us a hug.
Our tour started with a trip by kombi to the old fort with stunning views across the bay to the city.
Then on to older style transport – horse and carriage for a clip-clop journey to the square called Plaza de San Fransisco.
From there we continued on foot along the streets to some of the other restored squares, stopping at a few interesting spots and for lunch at the restaurant that Hemingway favoured in his Cuban days.
The last part of the tour took in the upmarket area where most of the embassies are located, including the SA embassy, and the Revolutionary square where we could imagine Castro addressing the crowds.
That brought our tour to an end – all that was left to do was to visit the cigar factory where Andre was hoping to strike a bargain on some Cuban cigars – that’s a story on its own that I’ll fit in somewhere along the way…
The Birds of Havana
I really can’t say that I did Havana any justice from a birding point of view – it was just a case of a few incidental sightings as we toured the city. For the record I noted the following birds during our short stay in Havana – the underlined ones were ‘lifers’ for me. I had no telephoto lenses with me so decent photos were not possible.
Cattle Egret (just like the ones back home) – on the way from the airport
Rock Dove – in the city squares
House Sparrow – in the city
Magnificent Frigate bird – my first ‘lifer’ of the trip, seen flying over the city (a real surprise as I thought they were deep ocean birds)
Turkey Vulture – second ‘lifer’ and one of the birds we saw most frequently on our trip
Mourning Dove – perched on city roofs and in the parks
Eastern Meadowlark – in grassy fields near the Old Fort
Cuban Blackbird – ditto
Cuban Martin – nesting in a hole in a building façade
Those who have seen and read enough can stop here…
More Classics and old buildings
For those, like me, who can’t get enough of the American ‘classics’ and the beautiful old buildings, here are more photos of what we found in Havana – the cars :
– the buildings :
Unique Havana Moments
The Train Museum
Havana’s Train Museum, which is akin to a scrapyard, won’t be competing anytime soon with others I’ve seen (the National Train Museum in York, UK has to be the best) but certainly earns points for being unusual, and they don’t charge an entrance fee :
Oh, I might as well add the story of our trip to the Cigar Factory :
Andre was determined to take some real quality Cuban cigars back to the UK, but wasn’t keen (to say the least) to pay the very high prices charged in the more formal shops. And so he and I set off on a mission to find a bargain, starting with the Cigar factory not too far from the hotel – we ventured inside but could see straight away this wasn’t going to be the place for a bargain, as all the goods were priced with Euro and Dollar bearing tourists from Europe and Canada in mind.
Leaving the museum, we were approached by a local guy, harmless-looking, who sidled up and said ‘psst, wanna buy cheap cigar’ or something to that effect. Andre engaged him briefly and when he suggested we follow him to ‘his place’ Andre, to my slight horror, agreed to do so.
Well, he took us down the road, around a corner, down another road into a gritty part of town and then up a staircase to his small apartment where we were told to wait in a rather dingy sitting room. Minutes later our new-found friend brought in his ‘brother’ who looked more the part of a gangster, muscled, gold chains and all, and carrying a large bag which he proceeded to unpack, pulling out various boxes and types of cigars.
Not to be outdone, Andre brought all his negotiating skills to bear and I sat fascinated but very apprehensive as the scene unfolded in front of me, with the dealer getting more and more agitated as he saw his expected ‘killing’ fading away, while Andre calmly opened each box and inspected every cigar individually to make sure they were genuine. Eventually we walked out with the very best cigars for about a tenth of the price he started with and the dealer close to tears.
I must admit I descended the stairs from the apartment expecting a dagger in the back at any moment, but didn’t turn around and just walked away as fast as possible. Definitely one of the more memorable moments of my travels!