Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
Back at Havana International Airport, we were dropped off at International Terminal 1 and after scanning the monitors for our Cayman Airways flight, it seemed a miss on the screen. ****, had we muddled up our days, or were we at the wrong airport? Surely there was only one international airport in Havana? Approaching the information counter the friendly lady shook her head and told us that we had to catch another cab to get to the outside International Terminal 2, only 10min by cab. Arriving at what looked more like a modern bus shelter we spotted out flight on the monitors. Pheww. With a few hours to kill we watched family gather around in tears saying goodbye to relatives. It was such a significant event for many due to the cost of flights and US embargoes clearly evident when seeing even teenage boys sobbing uncontrollably as a family member departed.
We were excited to head to the Cayman Islands, expecting them to be gorgeous but expensive and probably not on a typical backpacking route. Once up in the air, we looked down at the deep blue Caribbean sea before descending within 30mins and gaining our first glimpse of Grand Cayman, a gorgeous island fringed with turquoise green coral reef and an insanely white sand coast line. The three islands, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman balanced precariously on one side of the enormous Cayman Trench, the deepest part of the Caribbean that dropped into the blue over 6000mtrs, a perfect diving destination, and Murray was very excited.
Landing in the small airport we lined to clear customs and with all the documentation we needed bar one element, the address of the hotel we were staying at. Neither of us could even remember the name and wrote an incorrect one on our customs card…that would be a federal offense. They picked this up and we spent the next 30min trying to access our booking online from the customs hall before officials just gave up on us and waved us through. We obviously didn’t look like the average tourist with our dirty backpacks and worn clothing. Being the last ones through immigration our bags were waiting for us off the carrousel and we quickly moved through the gates and into our taxi to hotel Treasure Island.
We were quickly surprised about how un-British and highly Americanised the island was. We could pay in US dollars rather then the Cayman Dollar which was 20% stronger, Caymanians spoke in an Americanised Caribbean accent, the main highway that cut through the island was cluttered by shiny black SUVs and KFC, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s lined the street. The only reminder of British ownership was the occasional portrait of the Queen or a fluttering Union Jack. The other notable feature of the island was the number of financial institutions. As one of the key offshore taxation havens apparently this teenie tiny island had something like 1.9 trillion United States dollars in deposit across 281 banks, including 40 of the world’s top 50. So this made it the fifth largest financial hub in the world!
Checking into the monstrosity resort which was Treasure Island we made our way across two pools and down to the waterfront. Seven mile was a grand stretch of gorgeous white sand onlooking the Caribbean. One of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen. As we walked up the sand we passed one high end hotel after the next until we reached the Grand Hyatt, a room over $1000 a night to which wealthy Americans lined the deck chairs sipping the most decadent cocktails and tanned up in the sun. It was clearly the life of the wealthy. Apparently tourism had just taken over as the main income for the island after the economic crises. Where the majority of visitors only arrived for a single day on a cruise ship visit (1.93 million), so we were definitely an exception to the rule.
Our accommodation was very reasonable with our own little kitchenette for some cooking. The cost of food was incredible as 90% of it had to be imported. So we indulged in all the goodness of KFC, pizza and pasta with sauce. To counter act this, we spent our 5 days on the beautiful beach or pool while taking in a day trip to the infamous Stingray City. A sandbar 20min from the island to which tour boats took tourists to swim and feed the stingrays. We were both a little apprehensive with images of one of us being stabbed in the heart with a bar. But the animals were beautiful. Gliding through the water they swished up against you looking for food. A few tourists held them on top of the water while getting their photo and screaming in terror. Murray also took in two dives over the morning which he enjoyed but didn’t find it as impressive as other sites like in Honduras.
On 11–12 September 2004, Grand Cayman was hit by Hurricane Ivan creating a storm surge which flooded the island, and damaged an estimated 83% of the dwellings on the island. Power, water and communications were disrupted for months in some areas, as Ivan was the worst hurricane to hit in 86 years. We had met a couple in Nicaragua that worked on the island at this time but left after the storm due to lack of work and income. We wondered when the next big storm could possibly hit.
Our five nights went quickly and before we knew it we were back out at the airport, this time at 5am in the morning, to catch a 7am flight to the Jamaica. Separated by only 170kms but transitioning in a matter of 60min from one of the world wealthiest to poorest countries in the world. Interesting it would be.