We can’t believe it’s our last day in Cuba already, the time has flown by! We said goodbye to Kylie after breakfast, as she had another week so was heading further south, and then the Danes and us hopped in the taxi we had booked to take us to Havana. Although the car which arrived to pick us up bore no resemblance in the slightest to the one on the card we saw the previous day. We should have learnt by now that nothing is ever as it seems!
All of the motorways in Cuba are big, 6 lane, dead straight highways similar to the ones you see in the USA. Most of them are still in a pretty good condition, largely I presume because of the lack of private car ownership over the last 50 years. Despite this, I spent most of the ride back to Havana wishing our driver would keep his eyes on the road, and not on the dvd screen that he folded away whenever we drove past a highway checkpoint.
Before we left the UK, Ty watched a couple of documentaries about the state of things within the socialist country. He was led to believe that due to the trade embargos the country was in gross short supply of everything, however the reality is somewhat a different picture. While there are dilapidated buildings on every street, and a thriving black market trade for beef and lobster; stores in Havana are stocked with whiteware and appliances and we were shocked to see an Adidas and a Puma shop on the main street of Old Town. There may not be a wide range of choices when it comes to the brand (1 type of Ketchup for example) but provided you have the income things are definitely available.
One thing that was hard to get used as a female was being blatantly ogled at as you walked along the street. Men would openly stare, profess their love, wolf whistle, blow kisses and one time a guy even applauded. I’m not sure how far things would go if you responded favourably to their advances but most of the time it was more amusing than seedy and I couldn’t help but laugh.
With a population of 11.5 million and a literacy rate of 99.8%, there is a lot to be said for universal provision of education. Cuban medics are some of the best in the world and the Cuban government has provided a lot of medical support to other countries. When Cholera broke out in Haiti post the earthquake, over 40% of the 30,000 victims were treated by 1200 Cuban doctors. The government has sent doctors to help out in over 70 developing nations and a programme which works in Bolivia and Honduras has restored the sight of 1.8 million people.
The Cuba of the last 50 years is definilty changing. It began with Raul taking power from his ailing brother Fidel and making concessions that amendments to the regime were required. The Cubans are an entrepreneurial people who have adapted quickly to the changes that came into force 2 years ago allowing private ownership of farming rights, cellphones and certain amounts of private enterprise; such as the casa particulars, and hole in the wall pizza and icecream shops. The dual currency, originally designed to exploit the tourists who do come to raise the country’s income, combined with the regime changes is however creating a new division of “have’s” and “have not’s”, as those working within the tourism industry have access to the CUC, meaning substantially more buying power for their families. When you consider that the average salary for a doctor is the equivalent of 35CUC a month, and a taxi ride from the airport into Havana Old Town is 25CUC, its no wonder that people are giving up their careers to tend to the tourists needs. The sad part about it is that this is exactly what the regime was installed to prevent. The idea of equality for all unfortunately works better in theory than it does in practice due to the greedy nature of humans, but it will be interesting to see whether the government tightens the reigns again (as it has done in the past). If not I envisage that in 5 years Cuba will be a very different place to that it is today, but I hope that the essence of the spirit of the Cuban people finds a way to remain in the face of westernisation.
Next stop: Cancun
We were up early to catch the 7am bus from Trinidad to Santa Clara. Forgetting the lesson we learnt in Morocco we sat at the back of the bus where the lack of suspension gave us a bumpy roller coaster ride most of the way there. To make things more comfortable the guy next to Tyro was determined to claim more than his share of space, but fortunately he got off at the halfway mark.
Arriving in Santa Clara we were immediately mobbed by the taxi drivers and casa touts. None of us had eaten breakfast at this point and we wanted to find out information about the buses the following day so it was pretty overwhelming. We wanted to stay near to the bus station and only one guy said he had something close by - ‘only 5 blocks’…. 12 or 15 blocks later however and the casa was unavailable as it was full so after a horse and carriage ride we ended up in the centre of town anyway. We felt sorry for the poor house pulling all 5 of us, our bags, the casa tout and the two drivers!
The famous bulldozer
All sorts of different brands and sizes of cigars and rums
Ty and I at the Che monument
Wandering around town we found a lady in the main square selling roast pork sandwiches, and we all loaded up on them for breakfast as she was selling them in the local peso.
The battle of Santa Clara in 1958 was where Che Guevara and his troops derailed an armoured troop train on its way to Santiago de Cuba, seizing the city, which was a decisive victory in their struggle against Batista. You can visit the spot where the train was derailed - the first part of the site is free to visit but if you want to go past the really unobvious sunken tiles in the ground you have to pay a couple of CUC or be yelled at by the matron of the site. It didn’t look very fascinating and the bit we could see was only in Spanish so Ty decided he would go in and have a look and if it was good then the rest of us would check it out. His verdict meant that we were soon moving on. Stopping to watch a local guy fishing from under the bridge we saw some pretty large catfish but the water quality made us all agree that we didn’t want fish for dinner that night.
We had wanted to visit the tobacco factory for the tour but because it was Easter Saturday it was closed for visitors. We decided we would wander past just to check out the building and when we arrived we saw that the staff were working so we nosily peered through the windows, watching the ladies seated in rows with freshly rolled cigars piled next to them. Everyone except Janna and I wandered off to the shop across the road when one lady called out ‘hola’ and asked if we wanted to buy any. We asked her how much and she said 1CUC – Sure, why not! She told us to wait around the corner and the next minute her daughter followed us with a freshly rolled cigar smuggled under her shirt! Like giggly school-girls Janna and I went to meet the others at the shop, who were discussing cigar prices with the assistant. Casually enquiring which brand was made at the nearby factory and what the cost was it turns out we got ourselves a Cohiba, Fidel’s favourite brand - the retail price of which was 12CUC for one!!
Che Guevara monument
After some down time out of the sun at the casa we went for a walk to check out the monument to Che Guevara. Its funny, for a man who prioritised the needs of the people, he has been given a monolithic structure of a monument, which was built at a time when the country had very little cash flow. If he were still alive it would be interesting to see what he would make of it.
The casa we ended up in was a self contained unit, and the owner said we could use the kitchen for an extra 5CUC so we picked up some fruit and veges while we wandered around town to make a cheap but yummy pasta dinner. Sitting around the table we met the American guy who was staying in the 3rd room. He had returned to Cuba to repay a moral debt to a family who had taken him in and helped him out on his last trip, much at their risk as it was illegal then for Cubans to host foreigners and they faced jail time if found out. He was in the process of setting up a cultural exchange and not-for-profit organisation between San Francisco and Santa Clara and was having a cultural exchange video screening the following night. We gave him the last of our colouring in books and pens and he promised that he would make sure they were given to kids who would really appreciate them.
There was a big Easter weekend party in the town square that night so we wandered down to join the locals. Sitting on the steps of the plaza we smoked our smuggled cigar and enjoyed people watching. Tyro thought it was funny that all of the revolutionaries had really big beards and hair but all of the men especially the younger generations are clean shaven and in some cases hyper-metrosexual, with greased hair, plucked brows, and shaved chests.
A local group was performing in front of the cathedral and the singer had an amazing voice but once they finished we decided to head back to the casa as a dance party with really bad Cuban techno pop began. All of the teenagers were out in force dressed in their finest, the boys strutting around like peacocks, and we were all feeling about 10 years too old to be attending! We got sidetracked on the way by a group of old Cuban men singing traditional songs and Janna and I both ended up having a dance with some locals which was heaps of fun. I think they were a bit disappointed though at the end because they told us they were dance teachers and tried to sell us salsa classes but since we were leaving the next day it wasn’t going to happen.
Next stop: back to Havana for one last time
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Ty smoking our Cohiba
The ladies at the cigar factory
We were up early for our 7am pickup for our drive to Trinidad, Cubas third oldest settlement. We had decided to pay an extra couple of CUC to go in the minivan as it was supposed to shave 2 hours off the journey, and came with airconditioning. Unfortunately it was the first time our driver had been to Trinidad so he got lost! Although one of our detours wasnt helped by the fact that a local hotel owner had taken the sign away so that people would drive down the dead end road to his hotel! We ended up arriving in Trinidad at the same time as the bus and our driver tried to take us to a hostel he knew of, despite us telling him we already had somewhere we wanted to go. Cheeky! After getting himself thoroughly lost we ended up getting out and walking to the place Janna's friends had stayed at before and recommended to her. Unfortunately they were full but the lady of the house arranged for another casa up the road who had space for us all. While we were waiting for everything to be sorted out we noticed a big green fruit on the tree in their yard. It looked like an avocado but was about the size of our heads so we asked what it was and yep it was the biggest avocado I've ever seen in my life!
It was getting late in the afternoon and finally starting to get a bit cooler so we headed out to wander around the centre of town. Trinidad is beautiful. Its red-tiled roofs, pastel coloured buildings and laid-back atmosphere made it easy to understand why other tourists had recommended it to us. Founded in 1514 by a Spanish Explorer it was name a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. It felt like there was a real sense of community here, as is in much of Cuba, where the drivers all know each others names and wave at each other when driving along the roads. The kids are all outside playing something resembling either cricket or baseball in the street, using bottle tops for balls and sticks for bats, not bothered in the slightest that they dont have the right equipment.
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A fierce game of dominoes!
After wandering along to the Casa de Cambio to get some more CUC, we stopped at a little hole in the wall fruit stand to buy a mango. When I told the man I only wanted one he tried to give it to me for free, but feeling like our travel karma was becoming imbalanced with the free bananas we had already enjoyed I insisted on giving him a peso for it which he accepted with a toothy grin. Meeting everyone back at the casa we all sat on the rooftop terrace, sipping yet more rum, enjoying the sunset over the city, before dinner was ready. The wind had been picking up and grey clouds were gathering which made us think that it was not looking good for a day at the beach tomorrow and when we woke it was much the same. Disappointed we decided to walk down to the bus station to reserve our seats for the bus to Santa Clara and pick up some water from the supermarket.
Walking past a local bakery we spied locals coming out with big slabs of cake and Jane and Trygge stopped in to buy some. We had been laughing at an old man whose face was covered in cream icing but as soon as we took a bite we understood why - such hard cake to eat gracefully!
The sun finally decided to poke its head out from behind the clouds and so we headed back to the casa to get our stuff for the beach. Janne and Kylie were craving mangos so we stopped off to visit my man from the day before, who greeted me with a big smile and a handshake which was nice - I didn't think he would remember me!
The lady at the casa organised a taxi to take us the 12km to Playa Ancon and we spent all afternoon relaxing in the sunshine, swimming and snorkelling. The Caribbean water is extremely salty which makes it really easy to float, but tastes extra nasty if you accidentally take a mouthful. Trinidad's beach is really long with white sand and locals walking the beach selling pizzas, fruit and drinks. Kylie, Janna and I shared a coco-loco and we all sipped on more delicious mojitos.
By the time we got back to the casa we were all ravishingly hungry so asked for dinner a bit earlier. Kylie ordered lobster which when it came out was HUGE and we all had food envy. Technically casa owners arent allowed to sell lobster or beef, as only official licensed government restaurants are allowed, but there is a thriving black market for it. I assume that the government must be turning a bit of a blind eye to it as it was on the menu everywhere we went.
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Semana Santa parade
Waking up the next morning to blue skys we were excited for another beach day. The casa seemed kind of dark and when we went to turn on the lights we found that there was a power outage. Apparently rolling outages are common place in Cuba but it was the first time we had experienced it. The second bit of news from the owner was that her casa was fully booked that night so we needed to move to another place just down the road. Trygge isnt a massive fan of the beach so he and Janne went off for a hike and Ty, Kylie and I headed back down for another day of relaxation. We did a bit of snorkelling and Ty found a couple of hermit crabs. He scared the crap out of me with one of them as I thought he was just showing me a pretty shell but when i grabbed it a claw jumped out at me!
Back at the casa for dinner we ordered the lobster Kylie had had the day before, and then headed out to see the famous Semana Santa (Easter) parade. The parade was supposed to start at 7.30 but running on Island time it was more like 8.15 by the time the procession emerged from the Cathedral. Carrying big shrines of Mary and Jesus hundreds of locals made their way through the streets singing and dancing.
Next stop: Santa Clara
Sitting down before bed, Ty and I realised that we were over budget on our Cuba trip so far, without even trying. Our expensive beach trip the day before certainly haddnt helped matters but we needed to start being more careful with our spending as we only had a certain amount of Mexican peso's with us, and we werent sure whether or not our British cards would work to withdraw more cash, as ATMs are notoriously temperamental in Cuba.
Declining Isabella's offer of breakfast the following morning we headed into town to try and find something cheaper. Unfortunately the place we had had omelettes the previous day wasn't open yet and we ended up spending pretty much the same amount we would have at the casa, but got less food. Ah well.
After organising a mini-van to take us and our new Danish friends to Trinidad we set off in search of the local hop on, hop off bus to explore the Vinalian countryside. Unfortunately, things in Cuba are very rarely still as the guidebook says and the bus had not been in operation for several months. A local taxi driver came up and offered to take us around to all the places for the same price as the bus. After being cheated yesterday Ty, Kylie and I all quadruple checked the price before agreeing to it. Daniel, our driver, was lovely and took us all over the Valley.
Ty inside the cave
At the cave exit
Mural de la Prehistoria
The Valle de Vinales is the agriculture and tobacco heartland of Cuba and was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999. Our first stop was Cueva del Indio, a large limestone cave which the local indigenous people (the Guanahatabey) used as a cemetary and a refuge during the Spanish Conquest. Climbing the stairs into the cave, we then followed a contorted limestone tunnel through to an underground lake, where we took a boat trip, coming out at another entrance. The water was pretty murky from the rain yesterday but the stalagmites and stalactites were really impressive. Next stop was another of the Indian caves 'El Palenque de los Cimarrones'.
We had heard that there was a prehistoric painting on the face of one of the massive limestone outcrops which we were quite excited to see. Arriving there however, we were suprised to see that the Mural de la Prehistoria is not the cave drawings we were expecting, but a enormous garish painting which was commissioned by Castro in the 1960s to portray the emergence of the socialist man from the primal wilderness. One of Diego de Riviera (the famous Mexican artist)'s students was chosen for the commission and he directed dozens of local painters. Its pretty awful, but is apparently regularly touched by artists dangling precariously from the cliff top.
Driving through many small holding tobacco farms, Daniel then took us up to 'Mirador Los Jazmines' - a really ugly hotel with an amazing view across the Valley. The weather was still in a bit of a funk from yesterday and it was really windy up there so after taking photographs we didn't linger too long. The Valley is dominated by flat topped mountains ('mogotes') that protrude sheer from the fields on the valley floor. They are mounds of hard limestone which was left behind when the softer limestone around them eroded over the millenniums and today covered in forest they have the air of overgrown ruins.
Heading back towards town we stopped at a local tobacco plantation where we were shown the leaves drying the the hut, ready to be sent to the factories in the larger towns for the 2nd fermentation process before being made into the cigars that Cuba is famous for.
Valle de Vinales
Oxen are a common site
Farmer tending to his tobacco crop
Plowing the fields
Back in town we stopped at what was becoming our favourite little restaurant. Unfortunately the usual chef must have had the day off as the food was awful. Ty and Kylie ordered burgers which had to be sent back 3 times as the patty wasn't cooked, and despite Carolina and I asking for ham and cheese omelettes they came out without the cheese. We were hungry and decided not to say anything but we should have, as when the bill came they charged us for the cheese and would not believe us that they had come without. Ty and Kylie both ended up eating their burgers without the patty and feeling completely unsatisfied popped to the local hole in the wall pizza guy - which was also bad! Today is just not a good food day!
Deciding that the only thing which would make it better, and cool us down, we all bought tubs of icecream and sat on the steps of the Plaza to people watch. Carolina was still not feeling very well so she headed back to the casa for a sleep and the rest of us went for a walk through the Valley. The rich red soil makes for excellent growing conditions for planting tobacco, corn, maize, bananas, pineapples and sugar cane. During the time known in Cuba as the 'Special Period', the country was plagued by economic crisis and the government demanded a lot of sacrifices from the people. Energy consumption was to be drastically reduced and oxen replaced tractos in the fields. Despite the 'Special Period' having come to an end in 2005 farmers are still plowing the fields using oxen. We were greeted at one point on the track by a lovely old man with a toothless grin who invited us for coffee. Although we declined it was generous of him to offer.
After a siesta in the cool of our casas we headed back into town to meet up with Janne and Trygge for dinner. After our miserable food attempts during the day we were holding out much hope but our meal was absolutely delicious! With the menu inspired by Spanish and Italian cuisine we feasted on paella, succulent lamb, and wild duck and all of us decided that based on our main courses we had to have desert!
Next stop: Trinidad
Arriving at the bus station in Havana with Kylie and Carolina (our new Argentinian friend) for the 9am bus to Vinales, we were approached (as anticipated) by one of the taxi drivers offering to take us instead. We knew that for the bus was going to cost us 12CUC each and managed to get him to agree to take us all for 50CUC, 50c more than the bus!Grabbing our bags we headed towards his beautiful green classic american car and got ourselves settled in. In all honesty the springs on the back bench seat were pretty well worn and the suspension wasnt what it used to be, but it was an essential Cuban experience that we all wanted. Our sweet driver, dressed in his smartest pants and poloshirt, with his styley sunglasses was doing his best to impress the boss on his first day on the job.
Arriving in Vinales, we had planned to stay at a place Ronaldo had recommended, which was 12CUC a night each, but our driver said he knew a place where we could get a room for 15 - everyone knows someone who can do something for you in Cuba, and since almost every house on every street in Vinales is a casa theres plenty of competition! The rooms were in two houses, right next door to each other, one street back from Vinales main street so we took them and our lovely host, Isabella, welcomed us with fresh mango smoothies. YUM!
Socialist billboards are everywhere
Pretty painted casa's in Vinales
We were getting pretty peckish so Ty, Kylie and I headed into town to wander around, check out the tours available and stopped for a couple of cheap mojitos in the sunshine and some delicious omelettes. Arriving back at the casas and poor Carolina said she had been really unwell while we were gone, and that her host had called the local doctor for her. She was travelling by herself and was feeling pretty miserable so she was glad we were all back.
Ty and I had taken some colouring in books and pens with us and brought a couple of them out for the young girls who lived at the two houses. It was so funny cos the books had a sticker page in the middle and I was showing the girls. I took a sticker out of the book and put it on their hands and they both took it off and carefully placed it back in the book. Sally, one of the girls, was helping me learn my colours in spanish and became fascinated by our digital camera, wanting to take photos of me, us, her mum, the dogs and herself. At one point she really wanted to take a photo of me by herself, and although she was getting a bit too over-excited I said she could but placed the strap around her neck just incase. At the same time her mum came out and offered me a bowl of soup. Sally turned around and tripped over, and all I could see in slow montion was the camera going headfirst into the concrete, so i stuck out my leg to try and catch her. Unfortunately because I was sitting on the ground on an awkward angle I ended up covered in the soup, but did manage to catch her before she hit the ground. With the hot soup burning my legs through my pants I had to try and make light of the situation as I could see the tears welling up in Sally's eyes who obviously thought she was going to be in a lot of trouble.
Happy girls with their colouring books
Kylie learning salsa
Heading back to our casa to wash the tomatoe soup out of my clothes I joined a thoroughly baffled looking Ty, to have a drink with our casa owner, her son and his friend. They had all been speaking Spanish and poor Ty had been thrown in the deep end, and wasnt understanding about 95% of what was being said. We had only just started getting to grips with our basic spanish but the Cubans speak with a whole different accent - kind of like they have a marble in their mouth - which makes them even harder to understand! Isabella made us some rather potent, but delicious, mojitos and we had a great time learning the basics to salsa and attempting to communicate with each other.
That night we headed back into the main street to meet up with a Danish couple that Ty had made friends with that afternoon, having a cheap dinner before dancing in the square with the rest of the town.
The following morning, Isabella had set out a lovely big breakfast for us which got us ready to go for the day. The lady at the casa Kylie and Carolina were staying at had organised a car to pick us up and take us to a nearby beach for the day. Janne, the Danish chick, was coming with us so we picked her up on our way out of town. It had rained really hard over night but the morning felt fresh and we were hoping for a good day, despite the grey clouds. Arriving at Cayo Levisa we were all taken aback by the bright turquiose blue water, and lack of other people there. We had hoped to do some snorkelling, but despite the water being such a delectable shade of blue, it was very milky so it was pretty hard to see anything. We noticed lots of different sized holes in the sand and all of a sudden out popped a giant crab, who sped across the beach. Next thing we know, Ty turns into this 5 year old boy, poking and prodding sticks into all the holes and then chasing the poor crabbies around the beach. Not sure what he would have done if he actually caught one, but fortunately we didnt have to find out as they were all too speedy and weasly, manoevering out of his reach. We spent a lovely couple of hours relaxing in the sun and swimming, until the wind started to pick up. Hoping it would drop off again, we headed into the one and only restaurant for lunch, where we were serenaded by a local band, and Ty ended up buying their CD. Unfortunately the wind just got stronger so we decided to pack up early and head back to Vinales.
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The band over lunch
Arriving back at the house, we went to pay our driver, when suddenly there was a 'misunderstanding'. The previous day when the other host had offered to book us a car, and we had asked the price she had said 15CUC for the car. Wanting to make sure I had understood her properly I tripled checked - "por carro o por persona?" - her reply " no, no, no por carro". Arriving back and it was suddenly 15 CUC each. Kylie and I were really unhappy with this turn of events and desite the fact that the lady spoke a pretty good level of English all of a sudden she was only able to converse with us in Spanish. Poor Carolina, who was not around for the conversation the previous day was stuck being the translastor for us. 15CUC each was more than we had paid to get from Havana to Vinales and more than it would have cost us to get on a tour in town, but there was no negotiating with her staunchly crossed arms and ferocious painted talons of nails, so we paid up, but it left a sour taste in our mouth after what had been a lovely day out. Its a shame for her though, as the casa owners make commission of the trips their guests take and we had originally intended to book other activities through her, but decided not to based on our first experience.
Next stop: The Vinalian countryside
After a much needed lazy lie-in after last night I had breakfast at the casa, while Ty, feeling a little worse for wear (but claiming it was to save us money), went across the street to the pizza guy for a solid hangover cure greasy pizza, before we took a rather long but lazy walk to Revolution Square with 2 other guys from the hostel, Andrew and Chris.
At the centre of Revolution Square, where the masses came in their thousands to hear Fidel's famous 8 hour May Day's speeches is a large monument to Jose Marti, the founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Inside the monument we wandered around the museum, practising our Spanish translation skills before catching the lift to the top for a 360 degree view of Havana. The grand boulevards stretching away in the distance make an impressive sight. Looking down behind the monument we could see the Palacio de la Revolucion where Fidel and other high ranking officials have their offices. No-ones allowed to take photos of this building though. Ironically one of the most photographed buildings in all of Cuba is the Ministerio del Interior (Cuba's most secretive organisation, which has only one phone number listed in the phone book which, rumour has it, no-one will ever answer). The outside wall of the building has a giant mural of Che Guevara made of black metal.
From the top of the tower we had spied a couple of local teams playing baseball so we wandered over to watch for a while, and to escape the heat of the afternoon sun in the shade that the bleachers provided.
The top secret govt building
Jose Marti monument
View from the top
One of the ways in which Americans can legally visit Cuba is for them to come on a 'cultural exchange' visa. What this seemed to mean in reality (from our observations) is that they come on package resort holidays to the beaches in Varadero, and go on 'cultural excursions' to this or that monument of historical significance, get off the bus, take a photo and then get back on the bus again. They interact very little with the country and its people. Enjoying the freedom to choose our own path that comes with backpacking, we wandered aimlessly through the less touristy streets away from the monument and the tour buses, chatting with the locals we passed along the way. Getting a bit hungry we stopped at a street vender to ask how much the sweet finger bananas were. He ended up giving us a bunch of the bananas for us to enjoy free of charge - an extraordinary gesture of friendship in a country where every cent counts.
Eventually we made our way around to the local Artisan market. Cubans are extremely artistic people and although a lot of the artwork there is geared toward the tourist market; with paintings of old cars parked outside La Bodeguita del Medio (the restaurant which lays (disputed) claims to inventing the mojito), there are some very talented self taught artists creating other beautiful works which would not look out of place in the foyer of a head office in Europe.
Saying goodbye to Andrew and Chris, Ty and I headed around to San Francisco Square, stopping off at the chocolate museum for some delicious handmade treats, and a late afternoon sugar hit. There is a big rejuvenation project happening in this part of the Old Town and piles of cobblestones lay on the sidewalk waiting to be neatly re-laid. While gentrifying a city the size of Havana would be a monolithic task in any country, in this part of town there is evidence of money being spent on renovations, and walking along the softly lit cobblestone streets gives a feeling of romance, similar to that which Italian cities evoke.
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Education for boys
The evening glow
With the light fading we started to head back to the hostel, when something caught my eye. Right off the corner of the square was an afterschool facility for boys; an indoor shooting range with boys doing target practice on crushed tin cans. It seemed so out of place amongst the built up urban environment and perfectly painted buildings, and yet, like it was right where it was meant to be. Another group of youth were playing a fast paced game of soccer in front of the church next door, with locals sitting around chatting and people watching. It was a fascinating hive of activity.
We were planning an earlier start for the next day so restrained ourselves from buying another bottle of rum and after another delicious dinner on the balcony, headed to bed.
Next stop: Vinales
After the escapades with Ty's snoring we were pleased to hear over breakfast that the Polish were only in our dorm for one night.
Our first stop for the day was at the Casa de Cambio around the corner to change some of our CUC into the local currency, the peso, before Kylie, Ty and I wandered leisurely along the Malecon (waterfront promenade) towards the Old Town, stopping to look across the straight to the imposing fortress on the other side.
Wandering around Havana is like stepping back in to a time warp. It is a visual feast for the eyes, everywhere you look classic American cars are picturesquely parked beside dilapidated buildings, once grand in their heyday and still beautiful now, but in need of some tender loving restoration. They city feels rather like a beautiful lady in a ragged dress.
Our first opportunity to use the local peso was to satisfy our grumbling tummies with icecream, empanadas and pizza from one of the hole in the wall places that, since the regime changes, are now a common site in any Cuban town. While definitely not coming close to New York Pizza
or Italian gelato when lunch for the 2 of us was only 16 peso ($0.75 US) we weren't complaining!
The Capitol building
Menu board at Tys favourite pizza shop
We decided to relax in the park next to the Capitol building where we got the chance to watch a rather spirited debate between a group of Cuban men. Initially we thought they were having a fight but apparently its more likely that they were debating baseball (the national sport).
Fidel’s gift to the people was affordable ice-cream and after a siesta at the Casa we set out with Kylie and another German girl for Copelia (the government chain). Previously the Havana site was occupied by a notoriously elite ice cream parlour. Silly me left my sunglasses on the airport bus, and unlike other countries sunglasses are not an easy thing to come by in Cuba, so, tired of being squinty eyed, Kylie and I bought panama-style(ish) hats from a local street vendor. Arriving at Copelia the security guard tried to tell us that it was closed to foreigners for the day and a friendly local and his girlfriend struck up a conversation with us. We had heard about the ‘jinetaros’ who try to solicit tourists, and then take a cut from wherever they take them, and the German girl we were with had had a bad experience with one of them during her trip, so in her rather brusque German manner told this guy to go away. It was a bit awkward ‘cos I think he was just a genuine nice guy who wanted to be helpful to our situation and he told the security guy we just wanted to go in to take a photo. We walked inside to have a look and in my rather poor Spanish I asked one of the staff that since we had peso’s were we allowed to eat there, and he said it was no problem so we joined the queue. Apparently its not closed to tourists but they want you to go to the outside icecream stand and pay in CUC, as the security guard came over later on to try to get us to leave again.
Tyro was debating with me about the fact that I was taking subsidised icecream from the Cuban people and accused me of just not wanting to pay more for it, but for me it wasn’t about the price – I wanted to immerse myself in Cuban culture and the Copelia restaurants are a key part of celebrations for Cuban peoples so I wanted to experience that. Plus I thought he was being a bit hypocritical since I couldn't see the difference between me eating peso priced icecream and him eating peso priced pizza. Copelia is open from early morning to late at night, 7 days a week, and at all times you will find a queue of people waiting for their treat. After about 15 minutes we were seated and able to soak up the atmosphere. The icecream flavours depend on what’s available, or in season, and for 5 peso ($0.20 US) we were given 5 scoops of vanilla and orange icecream. It was delicious! The Cubans around us were really going to town and ordering bowls of what looked like a sponge cake to eat with it.
Mojito's at the Hotel Nationale
Hotel Nationale by night
We had heard that the best place to watch the sunset is at the Hotel Nacionale; Havana's grandest hotel, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Malecon. Although we took rather the long route there we managed to arrive in time to sit on the waterfront, mojito in hand and watch the fading light bounce off the white buildings.
Back at the hostel we joined the other backpackers for a delicious lobster dinner on the rooftop. When it’s the same price as chicken it would be rude not to! Leo, seeing us drinking the Havana Club Especial again, took it upon himself to give us foreigners a lesson in Cuban Rum and Cigars before we headed out to Casa De Musica.
Every medium sized town in Cuba has a Casa de Musica or a Casa de la Trova, where the locals go dressed in their finest to dance beautiful, sensual dances to modern Cuban beats; and the tourists go dressed in their travellers clothes to watch, and wish they had the ability to shake it in the same way that the locals seem born to. Interspersed between the dancers were beautiful, young Cuban men and women looking to sell their services to unsuspecting tourists. The entry and drinks were pretty expensive, but it was a great introduction to the Cuban music scene and we had a fun time dancing in the smokey cigar haze until being kicked out at closing time (3.30am)
Walking back through the dark streets to the hostel made me a bit nervous, but Cuba is a pretty safe place in general and in a country where streetlights do not always work you soon become accustomed to it and stop being afraid of what’s hiding in the shadows.
To be continued…
Rum lesson with Leo
The band at Casa De Musica
Since we booked our flights to Cuba they had changed 6 times, with the departure time becoming 4 hours earlier than originally planned. Arriving to check in at Cancun airport for our flight to Cuba we got a little worried as there was 2 (annoying) american groups who were booked on the 1pm flight who had been told that they had been bumped off because they had downsized the plane and now there wasnt room. One lady kept complaining that she didnt even want to go to Cuba anyway - she wanted to go to Israel - which was driving Ty crazy and it was all I could do to keep him from telling her to just go! Fortunately they must have decided they wanted us to go as we had no problems checking in. We had decided to leave one of our backpacks behind at the hostel in Cancun but fortunately we were only 1kg over the baggage allowance and they didn't make us pay extra since it was 1 bag for two people.
We had heard that the food in Cuba is rather bland and had intended to grab some salt and pepper sachets from McDonalds but we forgot so we ordered a quick snack from Johnny Rockets in the departure lounge which came with happy face sauce. How can that not make you smile!
Its finally time to go - with great excitement we boarded our plane! We ended up sitting next to another American lady (so much for them all being banned!) who had worked with Cuban artists to set up a joint photography exhibition and refurbish an old water storage tank into art gallery and she was excited to be returning after a few years to see how things had progressed.
Arriving into Havana International airport and going through customs was more of an ordeal than going through Heathrow on a busy day - it seemed to take aaages! All of the customs officers were taking their sweet Island time to process everyone off two (small) planes and it was a good two hours by the time we made it out to collect our bags. Weirdly they scanned our hand luggage again coming into the country before we could pick up our luggage. First job was to get into the 2nd extremely long line to change our Mexican Pesos into the local tourist currency, the CUC. It is illegal to take cuban currency out of the country so you have no choice but to buy it on arrival. We had read about a common scam being that the exchange places try to scrape a little of the top however when i asked the guy for the reciept at the airport (for proof of the exchange rate) he was onto me, handed it to me, winked and then very slowly and deliberatly counted out all our money note by note with a cheeky look on his face. Welcome to Cuba!
What became our nightly ritual
Waiting in line we had a guy come up and offer us a taxi into the city. We knew that the cost should be about 25 CUC so when he offered it to us for 20 we knew he must be one of the illegal cabs but decided to go for it anyway. Lots of the locals moonlight as taxi drivers in order to access the CUC and it causes more problems for them than the tourist if they are caught, but given that one ride from the airport to Havana Old Town is almost the equivalent of a months wage for a doctor they take the risk. When we asked our driver what his day job was however, he replied that he was just a taxi driver, kind of incredulous considering he spent 25 minutes looking for the street where the place that the Japanese guy who was sharing the ride with us was staying, and then another 20 looking for ours! haha.
Arriving at our hostel the manager wasn't there so we headed upstairs to the rooftop bar to wait for him, and tucked straight into some Mojitos made by the lovely bartender Leo. Sitting down to chat with the others around the table we soaked up the atmosphere and the sunset over Havana. We made friends with an aussie called Kylie and not much later on the instruction of other travellers who had been in Havana for a while we were heading to the local corner store to buy our first bottle of Havana Club Especial for the trip (at only $5.85 US for a 750ml bottle theres a reason why my liver now needs a detox!)
Once Ronaldo, the owner, arrived back he gave us a really good briefing about Havana and explained the two currencies to us, and how to tell the difference between them (an essential skill!) before we settled our stuff into our dorm. Tyro, having not had a good sleep the night before and having consumed a large portion of the rum we purchased was really tired, which is the only time he snores. Unfortunately for him (and for me) we were sharing the dorm with a group of 3 polish ladies one of whom prounounced loudly before bed time - "well, i hope nobody snores!" before waking me up in the middle of the night with her over the top, huffing and puffing at Ty's rather mousy, almost impossible to hear, snores, forcing me to get out of bed and encourage him to roll over.
Next stop: Exploring Havana Old Town