Wish you were there

BWIA has just introduced three new Latin American destinations: Cuba, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

Havana nightlife. Photograph by Leigh EduardoThe cathedral in the town of Grecia, Costa Rica. Photograph by Larry LuxnerThe top of the Río Ozama from the top of Santo Domingo’s Fortaleza Ozama. Photograph by Larry Luxner

There are many ways to wish your way somewhere.

There’s the “I wish I was anywhere but here” wish. With this wish, you really
don’t care where you end up, so long as it’s not “here”, wherever “here” is.
Then there’s the “you wish” wish — which means that someone with a light in
his eye has stated a great desire to go somewhere absolutely unattainable,
like the moon, or back in time, or the deck of Jennifer Lopez’s private yacht.
And finally, there’s the perfect travel wish. The one where you’re only a
booking away from your destination-stroke-destiny. With this wish, you just

have to talk about where you’d really love to go, and why, and somehow you
feel better about life and the planet and all that it has to offer.

This is the story of the third kind of wish. The kind where the possibilities
are truly possible. The great genie of the lamp always offers three wishes,
and sure enough, BWIA now offers three thrilling new destinations that I’ve
always wished I could visit.

Cuba

My top 10 reasons to go:

1. To catch a glimpse of the man himself (Fidel Castro, of course)

2. To sample the cigars from the famous tobacco plantations of Pinar del
Rio

3. To revel in the music of the International Jazz Festival, every other
December

4. To visit the breathtaking Sierra Maestra mountains

5. To go to the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana

6. To see the vaqueros (cowboys) ride the plains of Camaguey province

7. To see the amazing architecture of Habana Viejo

8. To take in the almost untouched ecosystems in the biosphere reserves

9. To visit Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia

10. To see if the tourist t-shirt my sister bought for her husband is telling
the truth when it says “In Cuba even the chickens dance”.

My first stop would be Havana, of course. I’d start with the city’s historic
centre — Old Havana, or Habana Viejo — declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site
in 1982. I could take in the Castillo del Morro, with its 20-metre moat, guarded
by the dozen cannon known as the Twelve Apostles. Next I’d stroll over to
the Plaza de Armas, with its Palace of the Captains-General — now the city’s
historical museum — and El Templete, the spot where the first mass was said
on the island in 1519. All the while, I’d be serenaded by the musicians in
the street, who continue the long-standing tradition that has given the world
rhumba, mambo, and son.

When I’m ready for a break from the urban, I’d go green. Cuba has 14 national
parks, with protected areas covering a third of its land area, and six UNESCO
world biosphere reserves. The Montañas de Moa-Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa are
the most biologically diverse region in the Caribbean;  the Zapata Peninsula
south-east of Havana is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with over 170 species recorded.
Cuba may be the Caribbean’s biggest island, but it’s home to the world’s
smallest mammal, a shrew-like creature called the almiquí; the world’s
smallest bird, the famous bee hummingbird, or zunzuncito, barely two and
a half inches long; and the Cuban pygmy frog, barely larger than a thumbnail.

Of course, I’m not going to miss the Jardines del Rey. These “Cuban keys”,
immortalised in Hemingway’s novel Islands in the Stream, boast
mangroves, flamingoes, sun-bleached sand, and turquoise waters. With an array
of water-sports, these islets host Cuba’s best beach resorts. Personally,
I’d like to see Cayo Guellermo, where Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, is
still docked on the beach that bears its name.

Costa Rica

I’m still at the wishing stage, and I haven’t yet booked my ticket, but
I’ve already made a list of things to take with me:

1. Waterproof camera, for whitewater rafting on the Pacuare River

2. Binoculars, for bird-watching in Braulio Carillo National Park

3. Hiking boots, for walking around the Irazu crater

4. Spanish dictionary, so I can ask the Ticos how to say “butterfly” in
Spanish.

I can’t speak for the other 999,999 tourists who visit Costa Rica every
year, but I can’t wait to take a canopy tour in Monteverde: you’re hoisted
on suspension cables up to the height of the forest canopy, then glide gently
through the treetops. The sight, the sensation, would beat any amusement
park ride I’ve ever been on. Talk about a land of adventure!

Costa Rica boasts six per cent of the world’s plant and animal species.
One quarter of its area is protected in national parks, Indian reserves,
biological reserves, and wildlife refuges. This is a dream come true
for eco-tourists. It offers me a choice of volcanoes — the Irazu and the
Poas — both of which are drive-in volcanoes, with craters, lagoons, and moonscape
geography. Or I can try something cooler (and less explosive) by immersing
myself in the cloud-enshrouded virgin forest of Braulio Carillo National
Park — a great place to observe bird-watchers delighting in the trogons and
quetzals. I’d also enjoy a visit to the Caura Biological Reserve, with its
rainbow-framed rivers and nesting scarlet macaws.

Bigger things await me at Ballena National Marine Park. Here I can watch
humpback whales on their migration journey, while closer to shore bottlenose
dolphins make their appearance. I’d also work up the nerve and try my hand
at whitewater rafting — helmet and life jacket are included in this ride.
Or I might venture onto any one of the popular beaches at Manuel Antonio National
Park.

Best of all, I’d get to see five per cent of the world’s butterfly species
las mariposas! From the bustling city centres to verdant forests
and arid plains, the delicate winged ones are, I’m told, never far away.

Dominican Republic

The other night I dreamed I was doing the merengue in a church. I knew immediately
that this was a sign I must be one step closer to getting to the Dominican
Republic. Why? Well, obviously, because the DR is called the home
of the merengue, and boasts some of the oldest and most beautiful churches
in the hemisphere. This is a land steeped in history, and I’d love to get
right into the thick of it.

I’d start my sightseeing with a tour of the “firsts”: the ruins of the first
stone-built hospital in the Americas, Hospital-Iglesia de San Nicolás
de Bari, completed in 1552; the Monasterio de San Francisco, the first monastery
constructed in this hemisphere, in the first decade of the 16th century; the
Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario, the first church constructed in the Americas;
and the gothic cathedral of Santa Maria, the first church in the New World
to be elevated to cathedral status, in

1542. For my grand “firsts” finale,
I could visit the Torre del Homenaje, the oldest military construction in
the New World, built in 1503.

After feasting my eyes on old architecture, I’d go even further back in
time, by visiting the Pomier caves, where I could admire prehistoric wall
paintings — plus large numbers of bats! The DR is also becoming a popular
bird-watching destination. The cotica parrot (the national bird), the guaraguao
(a hawk), and the barrancolí (which nests in a burrow) are a real
lure for bird aficionados.

Of course, after all those flights of fancy, I’d be off to enjoy the DR’s
amazing beaches. The best — like Boca Chica and Juan Dolio — are on the sheltered
Caribbean coast. There’s also  great scuba diving at the underwater park
in La Caleta. And Cabarete is one of the world’s finest windsurfing sites.

Finally, if I wanted to experience a real geographical high, I’d make the
3,087-metre climb to the summit of Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s highest peak.

It’s overwhelming to think how much there is to do and see in each of these
places — and now that BWIA offers direct flights from Trinidad to Havana,
San José, and Santo Domingo, the temptation to be my own genie and
make even just one of my three wishes come true is irresistible. Make your
own wish, and maybe I’ll see you there!