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Published: March 1st 2012
Cuba is a place like no other, a place where time has stood still since the 1950s. Memories of the past are visible everywhere you look, ancient Spanish buildings from colonial times and the best collection of classic cars you will ever see – the streets of Havana literally a classic car museum of examples from the 1940s & 50’s.
Cuba is now very special for us, the longer we stayed and the deeper our knowledge became of its past and the things that make it great, the more we learned to appreciate it for what it is.
In Cuba, we learned how to live back in time. We learned to make use of whatever basic facilities were available which we found difficult in the beginning. Internet is scarce and expensive, as are International phone calls which cost a fortune. Our first visits to grocery stores and supermarkets were interesting. We couldn’t believe the lack of basic items on the shelves. Was this really 2012?
Over time we began to compare many things between Cuba and the modern Western world. Which was better? How should countries be run?
Cuba became our home for those couple of months,
we travelled almost the entire length of the country, visiting many different places and staying with Cuban families in their ‘Casa Particulars’ (family guest houses), along the way.
Our first few days in Havana, we stayed in President’s Avenue, Vedado, with a family who didn’t speak any English, but they made us so welcome and it was a great start for us. From here we explored many corners of Havana and were quickly amazed by the musical talents of the Cuban people. Everywhere we went you could see musicians, a guy walking down the street carrying a huge double bass, a guy on the back of a motorbike carrying a guitar, a band rushing to their next performance etc. The people playing or singing on the street and in the cafes & restaurants were exceptionally talented. We now knew were we definitely in Cuba!
After a week in Havana we took the bus to Cienfuegos, a lovely little town with a malecon (promenade) that stretches as far as the eye can see. This place has been named a UNESCO world heritage site and is where a famous 40s-50’s singer “Benny More” made legend. We stayed in a lovely
guesthouse right next to the sea and our days were incredibly peaceful here. Our next stop was a small beach village called Rancho Luna, which was a lovely little place and perfect for a few days of relaxation. We enjoyed it a lot and spent most our days chilling and Benn fishing on the beach. We managed to go diving too, which was great but the Whale Sharks that normally pass by this area at this time of year hadn’t showed up for some reason…they must have known we were coming! One of the highlights for Rancho Luna was sneaking in to a dolphin sanctuary to swim with the dolphins after closing hours with our local friend who was friends with the security guard. Amazing experience but quite freaky swimming with Dolphins at night!
Our next stop was Trinidad, a beautiful colonial town with its cobbled streets and colourful little houses. Here we stayed with a lovely couple, Dr Jose and his wife Addys who cooked for us every night. We still remember her cooking now, some of the best food we had in Cuba including huge lobsters one night which were gorgeous.
One day we headed out
to a nearby beach called ‘Playa Ancon’ a half hour drive from Trinidad. The beach was amazing and the water so clear. One of the best beaches we visited in Cuba! As we were lay sunbathing a crazy rainstorm hit the beach leaving everyone running for the cover of the beach bar. It rained for an hour and we all drank beers till the sun came out again.
From Trinidad we travelled to Cayo Coco, passing through the cities of Ciego de Avilla and Moron. Cayo Coco is known for its white sand beaches and is one of the main tourist places in Cuba with tons of hotels. We had come here so that Benn could spend a few days fishing as it was one of the top fishing places in Cuba. Unfortunately this place has no Casa Particulars, so we had to stay in an all-inclusive resort for a few days, which is not as interesting as staying with local families but it was great to relax and unwind. Having travelled to Cayo Coco mainly for Benn’s fishing it was a bit disappointing as the winds were so strong it made fishing almost impossible. Benn spent two days
out on boats and managed to catch a few fish but not the whoppers he had in mind.
After Cayo Coco, we travelled further east to the music capital of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba. This quickly became one of our favorite places in Cuba filled with history and a more Caribbean feel than anywhere else in Cuba. There was lots of cultural things to see and do and we had some great nights out in different music places including Casa de le Tradiciones, a favorite hangout of many a Cuban music legand, where we danced salsa all night with the locals which was so much fun. A half bottle of Havana Club Rum for something like $2 makes for a good night!
It was Santiago de Cuba where we were also introduced to the new age Cuban music, ‘Reggaeton’ which is typically blasted out in bars and discos accompanied by Bad Boy Music videos. It gave way to some of the most provocative dancing we have even seen, which was shocking in the beginning with guys grinding girls like there’s no tomorrow, but got funnier the longer we stayed in Cuba.
From Santiago de Cuba we explored
a nearby mountain range called ‘La Gran Piedra’ meaning the ‘Big Stone’ & Parque Baconao, a nearby national park. Our transport for this exploring was an old guy with his 1983 brown Lada, who drove us around for the day. On the way to the top of a mountain, the car overheated and seriously we thought it would go no further. The driver was not worried at all and grabbed some water from a nearby stream to cool the car down. A few minutes rest to cool down and we were on our way again. We have no idea how half of the cars in Cuba are still on the road!
One of the highlights in this area was visiting the “Valle de la Prehistoria”, a hillside filled with man-made giant dinosaurs all built by inmates from a nearby prison. It was amazing! Jurrassic Park, eat your heart out.
After Santiago de Cuba, we headed to Baracoa, the eastern tip of Cuba. En-route to Baracoa we stopped in Guantanamo city and went fairly close to the infamous US Naval Base Guantanamo Bay but didn’t quite get to see it. It was a 5 hour bus journey through to
Baracoa which took us along the amazing La Farola mountain pass, a road that has breathtaking views across valleys and un-spoilt rainforests. Prior to the 1962 opening of the La Farola road, Baracoa spent 400 years in isolation to the rest of Cuba, receiving only occasional visits from passing ships. 400 years removed from the rest of Cuba and the rest of the world paved the way for a magical little town bursting with life, culture and quirks all of its own. We spent most of our time in Baracoa exploring the small town, the nearby villages, beaches and plantations. One day we drove out to the Humboldt National Park stopping at beaches and villages along the way. We reached a place called Taco Bay and an old park ranger took us out into the bay in a rowing boat so Benn could fish. We didn’t catch any fish but whilst on the boat we seen a HUGE Python curled up on some rocks. He was super fat and I’m sure was easily 10 feet long, wow!
In Baracoa we took a few salsa lessons which were great fun and had some good nights out practicing our salsa in
local music places ‘Casa de le Trova’ and ‘La Ranchon’, a hilltop open air club with beautiful views over the town. We stayed with a family, Alfredo & his wife Lilian in their lovely home. Despite our basic Spanish and Alfredo’s almost zero English we would spend a couple of hours each day where Alfredo would talk to us about Baracoa and Cuba in general…some great stories by lovely people that we will never forget.
From Baracoa, we took a 22 hour cross country bus trip all the way back to a place called ‘Varadero’, not far from Havana. This dreaded journey turned out not to be as bad as we imagined and we managed to get some sleep along the way. Varadero should probably be declared a Canadian state as it is packed with Canadians on all inclusive holidays. The 20km stretch of beautiful beach has lots of hotels and whilst it doesn’t reflect the ‘real’ Cuba, we had a great time and were certainly ready for some relaxation and small luxuries after being constantly on the road for the last few months. We spent our Christmas and New Year in an average hotel but it was right
on the beach which was great. Our friends Jean & Tuyen from Canada were with us for a week and staying in a lovely resort just down the beach from us, where we ended up spending most of our time. We had an excellent Xmas & New Year here.
After New Year we headed back to Havana for the second time and stayed right in the centre on Armistad (friendship) street, with a lovely lady Tamara and her family. Here we continued exploring, went to China town, strolled the poorer side of the city,went to the cinema ate at local food stalls etc. We also learned that many of the street names in the centre of Havana have some interesting history attached to them, for instance, ‘Calle Obispo’ meaning Bishop Street. In the old days we learned that a bishop lived in this street and anyone that was asking for directions to a certain place, people would say, oh go down that street where the Bishop lives. In time, the street had its name. Another example is “Calle Lamparilla” (little lamp street). Before old Havana had electricity, there was a little lamp placed in this street which was lit
every night. This little lamp became a symbol of the street and in time, the street was named after it.
After another week in Havana we decided to go to a place called “Bahia de Cochinos” (Bay of pigs). It is a place where in 1961, the US plotted to take over Cuba and landed 1400 USA resident Cuban soldiers on to the beaches of the Bay of Pigs to launch an attack with the aim of overthrowing the Cuban government. The invasion ended up being an embarrassment to the US and the battle lasted only 2 days before the Americans were defeated. The whole episode was a failure from the word go. Much controversy surrounded the incident after President at that time JFK cancelled air support to the soldiers that had been landed on the beaches leaving them stranded and helpless against the Cuban forces. There are people who believe that this action may have cost JFK his life and could have been the reason he was assassinated years later. This is just a theory, the truth of which is unknown.
The Bay of Pigs is known for its amazing diving. We stayed in the small town
of Playa Giron with a lovely couple Julio and his wife Lidia. Julio was a dive instructor which worked perfectly and we went diving with him every day that we spent in the Bay of Pigs. Some of the dive sights were amazing. Only 150 metres from the shore the reef drops off to a depth of 300 metres, we have never seen anything like it! We held onto a shipwreck that sunk at a depth of about 15 metres, it was perched on the edge of the drop off and a depth of 300 metres lay directly below us. The ship looked like it could topple down the wall out of sight, any second. The diving was truly spectacular and one of our most relaxing times in Cuba. Almost every place we visited in Cuba we wished we could have stayed longer and Playa Giron was one of these places.
Our last stop was in a place called ‘Siboney’, a suburb around 20km from downtown Havana. Siboney is a quiet residential neighborhood of the ‘better off’, a place full of large houses, home to mainly military or government families. We seen a different side of Cuba whilst staying
in Siboney and realized that not everyone in the country is struggling. We spent a quiet month here staying with a family enjoying relaxed life in Cuba and reflecting on the time we had spent here. Since starting our trip in April 2011 we have jumped from country to country and been on the go, non stop. Siboney was our time to wind down, relax and we spent countless hours in the garden reading and enjoying the afternoons. We took Spanish lessons every day with a man called Nelson, a lovely guy whose company we enjoyed a lot and soon became a friend. We learned a lot about Cuba from our time spent with Nelson and hopefully in time we can improve our spanish.
After two & a half months in Cuba, we left Siboney and headed for Havana airport and on to our next Country, Mexico. Our time in Cuba was wonderful, we learned a lot about life, hardships and the determination of people who have almost no freedom to realize their dreams. We talked more about politics in Cuba than we had ever done before and are grateful for what we learned. We admire the people of
Cuba, it will always remain a very special place for us and we hope to return again one day to visit our new friends again.
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