Arrived in Cuba on the 28th of September in the middle of the night. First introduction was the stern and smoking immigration supervisor standing behind his underling scrutinizing the chicca cina's passport and visa form. After barking out whether CC can speak english, she is told to fill up another form for entry. (Note:
Malaysians, there is no need to purchase the USD15 visa before arrival in Cuba. Singaporeans, you have to - a Singaporean seemed surprised that he needed one but I think he brought up the topic to confirm whether he had been cheated of $15 or not ;o) )
Gringo's here, Gringo's there. Grande Gringo was immediately and incesstantly identified as a target for handouts of money, free drinks, potential cigar purchaser... generally, convertible dollar
piggy bank. Cina on the other hand, whilst less targetted for a flow of cash, was instead a walking museum exhibit! They do have a Chinatown in Habana but in other places, its a real novelty for them. Those slanty eyes give it away consdering how the Cina is now so dark from the incessant, burning sun! The bandana that she has worn on numerous other dives was bleached from just
One of the many classics still used in Cuba...
These guys are masters of keeping things going! There are thousands of these classics in various degrees of repair still running around. Most date from pre revolution(1940s to 1950s)...
one day's diving in Playa Larga.
To the unorientated, the country, the people, the psyche and the culture and the FOOD(!) take some getting used to. The country is a massive ongoing social experiment by virtue of it's predicament. The US embargo is clearly making people suffer (come on United States, stop playing God with the world!!!!) and providing the government with means to exonerate its failings. Arguable, the lion's share of the hardship ís as a result of the embargo but a lot is due to a stoggy bureaucratic system and apathy that comes with a ´poorly paid job for life´syndrome. The contradictions are blatent, from the bare cement walls that define the house of the bicycle man in the corner to the cordless home phones of the middle class, from the peso pizzas to the USD10 seafood meals in a paladare
with little in between, from the guy at the pottery factory, pounding clay into pots 10 hours a day earning next to nothing, to the person standing all day at the street corner who refuses to work because making tourists part with their money is more lucrative.
Well enough deep deliberation.... Locations and Connections
Using various modes of transport, but mainly the Viazul
we zoomed and tooted to the locations of Habana, Vinales (near Pinar del Rio), Playa Larga (at top of Bay of Pigs) for 3 days of caribbean sea diving, quaint Trinidad and Che´s Santa Clara. Map of Cuba
The trips on the local transport were more memorable though, especially the bus that took people from Playa Larga to Jaguey Grande. Workers and students cram into the rickety, smoke belching tin can on 4 wheels daily to get to the bigger town.
Habana Vieja and Trinidad, both UNESCO sites, are beautiful. Salsa and Son music in the evenings at the plazas make one want to stay just that little bit longer to enjoy the breeze, have just one more Cuba Libre (the definitive Cuban rum and coke) or Mojito and watch the bodies gyrating to the rhythms. Food
The peso pizzas at the corner of calle 23 and 12 (Habana) are yummilicious as was the food in Mario's house (Cienfuegos) and Estela's Paladar
(Trinidad). And before we forget, the Mojito's in the bar downstairs of Union Frances de Cuba (Verdado, by Parque John Lennon) were the best we tasted. The food in
the pretty, open air restaurant upstairs was affordable and delicious (Thanks Nelson!). In Summary....
Its a beautiful country, with many resources, such low crime (rivalling Japan I bet!) and admirable emphasis on education but her people do have to manage within an environment of constraints on who, what, why and when, weaved into daily life. (CC adds: One up for the Pastors of Peace
Suffice to say Cuba is both fascinating, and some of the time, frustrating. However, take the scams at face value and in context, get to know the people, enjoy the time capsule effect and huge fun and experiences come rolling through.
We came away with not just amazement at the beauty but such respect for the likes of Lazaro, Lester, Timothia, Nelson and Aurora, Enrique and Naomi... SALUD!
We spent a few days at the beginning and then a few at the end in Habana. Each day we strolled through the city from our base in Verdado taking in the surroundings (and heavy exhaust fumes.) A huge culture shock at first with strained faces, beautiful yet broken down buildings and scam after scam.
The pictures speak louder than words.
A must do is the cigar factory tour in Habana (the oldest and biggest factory is the one next to Capitol building in Centro Habana). The CUC 10 pp was well worth every cent as we saw the experts (takes 9 months to train to roll ONE type of cigar) mould, roll, cut and paste each and every one by hand to ensure perfection in look, puff and taste. The precision so great that there is less than 1% of rejects. They even put every one in a vacuum device to test its flowability! (PS: Dad and Jonathan, you will get to sample the finished product at Christmas!)
The nicest part of town is by far the Historico Centro... this we strolled on the last full day. San Cristobal to a well earned peso pizza on Ave de Belgia was a good route.
Many thanks to Nelson and Aurora (can be found on hostelworld.com) for an excellent introduction, local map and friendly casa.
We arrived via Pinar del Rio after a 2hr 15min bus ride. This tiny village has become exponentially popular over the past decade and the local casa´s cash
in. (Cuba operates a casa particulares system which basically gives a home the right to rent rooms to toursits in exchange for a fixed license fee per month. In places where many casa´s operate, competition is strong (10CUC for a room achievable during low season). The region is a rural cozy place with some great hiking - albeit with no maps and few marked trails. However we managed to bungle our way through various valleys, between the amazing limestone rock formations and ford swollen (small) rivers, emerging unscathed for the 3 days we were there. On the last day we hired a moped for 27CUC and got our money´s worth with about 6 hours in the saddle. We rode all the way north to the port village of Puerto Esperanza and enjoyed a strategic few beers in a cave bar to sit out a thunderstorm. The slippery roads were a sinch on the way back!
Having ditched the plan to travel to and dive Maria la Gorda at the far West (sewn up with one government hotel, no casa´s and poor transport links) and having organised diving with Nelson in Playa Larga
Gordon the Geko...
I spent many hours in the garden of our casa catching this inquisitive fella in bits and bytes...
for 3 days time we travelled via Havana to Cienfuegos, a pleasant town on a bay. A few day with Mario and Louisa, sitting in their fantastic garden and enjoying their scrummy meals was A1. The town is pretty compact and can be seen in a day easily, including the long walk out to the Punto Gorda. We met up with a few local lads - Lazaro the bicycle repair man with two beautiful girls and Lester a student cum local teenage rap star. Mucho gusto hombre´s!!! We will be in touch.
East Coast Bay of Pigs
And now a touch of bubble blowing! Staying in Playa Larga at a second choice, second rate casa (but the only available at that time), we had our first experience of the downside if you stay with non-ideal hosts. Here we were perpetually asked to send packages of make-up and clothes to them and made very uncomfortable when not deciding to buy breakfast from them!
It was balanced out with some enjoyable diving for 3 days. Blue calm waters greeted us each morning. Interesting diving as it was both our first time diving the caribbean. More tube
sponges and different macro life than asia - we found some great pink snapping shrimps and a new nudibranch. What was clear was the absence of larger fish - clearly the heavy fishing and apparthy in controlling poaching from this ´protected´ marine reserve has taken its toll. Having said that we found a great pair of giant barrucuda that stayed with us the whole 102 minute dive and the odd snapper and lobster.
We left Playa Larga to Jaguey Grande early the next day on the local bus (Peso2.50 pp - 0.1USD). We were lucky to be one of the first on board to get some space on the floor by the driver for our backpacks. Better than the alternative of the CUC20 taxi ride! This 1 hour ride and subsequent connection to Trinidad with Viazul at the autopiste service stop, went like clockwork with the precision of a Den Haag to Amsterdam train.
We were led to a nice upstairs room by Tania who was looking for a customer at the bus station and stayed with her sister and b-in-law (Naomi and Enrique) for the next 6 days. We had heard
Idylic Playa Ancon....
An hours bike ride south of Trinidad is Playa Ancon - site of an all inclusive resort. We took the cheaper option and found our own little beach up the coast...
Trinidad was nice but were still pleasantly surprised by this quaint town up on a shallow hill some 11km from the sea. First few days were spent drinking peso beer, seeing the Historico Centro and building a rapour with the local peso pizza man.
The second day we met up with Garth the lone Ozzy traveller and arranged to rent bikes and cycle to Playa Ancon the following day together (took about 1 hour on the rikkerty machines hired from Enrique's buddies for 5CUC each - Can also hire from the information centre near church Santa Ana apparently). We had a great day out with plenty of sun and sea.
There we also headed to the mountains of Topes de Collantes. Rich and Garth had gone for the cheap option on transport and negotiated a deal with a stocky 1960´s lada owner by the name of Ricardo. Now, Topes is one of these exponential steep hills that reaches 35+ degs at the last 600metres. That poor car breathed a sigh of relief at the top (after being in 1st gear for 30 mins) along with its passengers! We had a great walk to a local waterfall and ignored
Waterfall near Topes de Collantes, highlands near Trinidad
This was as refreshing as it looks... after a 1 hr hike into the ravine the 26 degC water was a welcome refresher! Shame there wasn´t one at the top of the ravine also! Thanks for the photo Garth...
an irrate, bogus offical asking for money on our return - must have been bogus as no one in Cuba fights that hard for money that goes straight to the government! After some amusing but tense hand signals with Ricardo who decided to head back to Trinidad, despite being told to go back to the national park to allow us to do more walking, we ended up prematurely back in Trinidad and filled the time with a visit to a local pottery.
Sitting on the Casa de la Musica steps for some Salsa and Son in the evenings are a great way to end the days with every night kicking with locals outnumbering tourists 3 to 1. We went to bed happy...
Another day in Trinidad center and we took up Garth´s suggestion to pay a visit to the Che monument in Santa Clara and share a taxi 4 ways with another guy who had joined by this stage - Loopy Larry from Finland. Jimmy the semi-legal taxi driver was a star by taking us to our casa and dropping us back to the Che monument without question. The Che monument is worth a look.
Che monument in Santa Clara
A real Soviet/China feel to the place - grand big open space...
The memorial allowed us to awe at the charisma of Che Guevara and try to get some insight into a man who lost his life in Bolivia along with the group that followed him there to continue the revolution in other parts of South America. What is difficult to understand is how someone in the midst of a revolution can have so many quality photos taken of him!
Cuba is captivated by Che, so are we! Rich thinks that Castro has cleverly capitalised on this by integrating this with his part in the revolution and communist beliefs - something that ironically was an increasing divide between Fidel and Che toward the end and probably led to his Bolivan exploits after being quietly pushed out of Cuban politics and government.
We ended up where we started, in Habana. This time looking through different eyes following our experiences of the previous 3 weeks - we flew out thoughtful and longing to visit a normal supermarket in Merida.....
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