The Cuba Trip – Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey and a final time in La Habana

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February 14th 2014
Published: February 14th 2014
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Santiago de Cuba – The Afro Caribbean part of Cuba – a city of music, history and an edge

The road trip to the City is pretty bumpy – reading would make you ill so it’s relax and enjoy the views along with the jolly noise and songs by the African – Cubans who are the majority of folk on the bus. The Landscape is interesting as it’s much more fertile than any other part of Cuba we have seen. There is fresh vegetation everywhere, the land being ploughed, plenty of horse drawn carts and the shanty towns begin to look more like the ones we see in Afro Caribbean islands – made of tin sheeting and colourful.

The journey takes just about 2 hours and even though we have arrived half an hour early, we are met by Ramon the taxi guys sent by the Casa we are staying at. He has turned up in a pretty impressive looking American Plymouth car and he takes us to our new pad for C5 – well worth it. We stay at a CP Hostal La Terrazza near the historic centre run by a young couple who speak English – Martin & Gisel.

Breakfast at the CP for C5 each is great value as they provide lots of healthy food & great coffee on the Terrace from where you can see the Bay - not much to crow about as a lot of it is industrialised but a view of the sea none the less.

The temp is around 30-33 degrees and it’s humid. Unfortunately like many Caribbean islands, we end up with sunny mornings and 2 afternoons of on-off rain; hey ho we can only grin and bear it like the locals who continue their dominos and chess games from the park wherever they can find shelter, including under the covered front of any store – commitment or what?

Parque Cespedes is the main square in the historic (ie invested in and maintained) district. It’s a fairly typical Spanish style square which has beautiful old colonial buildings all around (except for one 1970’s bank block) including the home of Velazquez – the islands first Governor – and the oldest building in Cuba, the Cathedral (currently under renovation), an old colonial club, and the Casa Granda Hotel which has a nice and reasonably priced Bar/Café Terrace with a view onto the main square. The classical Town hall on one side of the square opposite the Cathedral is actually a fairly recent (1950) reproduction but it was from here that Fidel Castro announced the victory of the revolution.

Casa de la Trova in Heredia (street) leading away from the Cathedral & the Casa Granda Hotel is ‘music town’ with history, with daily gigs (some impromptu) am, pm and late night but to Cuban time. It’s generally packed inside and outside and many folks dancing. It’s a fun place to hang out for free or you can order a cocktail or two. We also try the Coro Madrigalista (near the Bacardi museum) – a live music venue for traditional music with old crooners and players. C1 each for foreigners - it seems locals get in free. Its fun and a good way to spend the evening after 8.30pm. Apparently, weekend nights are party nights when music is played even in the squares till about midnight. If we’d have known we may have by-passed Bayamo.

We have dinner at Benita Farandula for the first night as it’s recommended and serves some Baracoan food (Fish in coconut cream etc) and local Cuban dishes. There was nearly a hic cup when they say after 15 mins of us ordering that the fish (which they recommended) is not available so we say we’ll come back another day. Hey presto 1 min later the fish is on again! It’s ok but we won’t be back. Baracoa is one place we chose not to visit as it’s at the Eastern corner of the Island and involves a long bus journey. It’s supposed to have a culture akin to Haiti rather than Cuba. The French and Haitian influences are around in Santiago as well – post the slave revolt in Haiti, many French landowners came to Cuba and set up in El Tivoli, the area by the port.

We also check out Restaurant Espana near Plaza de Marte, at the other end of the old district, as its seafood only and at ridiculously cheap prices. Though we are not sure we got what we ordered by way of style of cooking, the lobster and the fish were pretty good for C6 each & a sort of seafood rice for C3. For the final night we have decided to eat in at the Casa and it will be chicken in salsa + Camarones with all the trimmings. Unfortunately C has a stomach upset (we think a touch of sun stroke and feels ill and cold in 33 degrees, while M wants the aircon on) so can’t eat much more than soup and a bit of chicken (which is fab) but M gives the rest his best shot!!

One activity that seems a bit lethal here is the driving; they seem to toot the horn as if to say ‘ I’m coming through like it or not’ at 70mph on narrow streets so look out pedestrians and traffic coming the other way. There are no horse drawn carts in the city but a lot of guys on motor bikes who pick up passengers to make some money. About 90% of all vehicles belch out fumes which makes the non-pedestrian roads very difficult to walk along without choking. There is, thankfully, one street (Jose A Saco) that runs the length of the historic centre which is pedestrianized and this helps.

Generally we have found the country pretty safe for travellers, Santiago is a bit edgy in places, and Havana has it’s rough side but the guide book highlights Camaguey as being the worse and we have yet to go there – next stop for 2 days. Lone woman travellers get a lot more attention – we met a woman from Switzerland (Evelyn) who had a bad time in Santiago (elsewhere it was fine) till she hooked up with 2 German guys and all the unwanted attention disappeared.

On the other hand, Cubans on the whole are very friendly and they greet friends and family with a hug and kiss on one cheek (even the men do this sometimes). They cross the road to go out of their way to say hi & we have even noticed that folks in cars passing on the road, stop and start chatting & get out & hug & kiss and ‘sod the rest of the traffic’.

In Santiago many folk see to drink beer a lot, women dress up and have long manicured nails, many guys hang about with lots of gold chains & rings on, many of the older folk beg on the streets. It’s a real mixed bag of life here

We try the walking tour suggested in the LP guide, starting in the El Tivoli district (an ex-French Quarter) near the bay front where we check out Club Nautico as a poss for dinner – nice location but the Bay is filthy. From the clock tower we head for the Padre Pico steps (famous but we never did find out why!) up to Museo de la Lucha Clandestina – gives details of the underground movement of the revolution; then to Balcon de Velazquez with views over parts of the city & port (its free but you pay C1 per camera if you take pictures); Parque Cespedes; pass Casa de la Trova (sessions at 6.30 to 8 pm and 10pm to midnight upstairs); on to Plaza de Dolores (with drinking house at the corner - C1 for a beer and al fresco – unless it rains of course); then finally Plaza de Marte, which features a tall column with a roll of dynamite and a red cap on top!!!!.

Just beyond Plaza de Marte is Cuartel Moncada which is a huge fortress like complex (now a school and Museum, then a barracks for the Batista Army) which was attacked in 1953 in a disastrous push by Fidel Castro on the outskirts of the old city when one of the groups of fighters got lost in the city – not sure how – even we could find our way about quite easily and the place would have been smaller then with less houses. Many of Castro’s fighters were killed or caught & later killed. If the revolution had failed it wouldn’t even get a mention.

We decide to visit the Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia which is about 2 to 3 kms from the Almeda (Clock Tower) by the bay. We negotiate with a hustler and a horse drawn cart man for a return trip which he distinctly says will be 10 Monedas National currency (C even checks) – the price is normally 1 peso each there and one back. Seems too good to be true – we should have known better. So we trot off and after a bumpy ride get to the place which is pretty smart, regal and really well looked after. The cemetary has the graves of many of the fathers of Cuban Independence, many fighters from the past and the revolution and a special Mausoleum to Jose Marti – the father of the nation so to speak. Until we came to Cuba we had never heard of him – Fidel & the Revolution get all the press but he has a statue and a park dedicated to him in every town, village and city we have been to.

Also in the cemetery are the graves of people like Cespedes said to be the father of the first war of independence against the Spanish, Bacardi (the Rum Magnate), Maceo the greatest General the Cubans had and many more heroes who fell in the revolution. The Marti Mausoleum is huge and there is an eternal flame in front of it and there is a changing of the guard with great pomp and ceremony every half hour. So after a few more pictures we take the ride back to the Clock Tower and we even felt generous enough to give the guy a 50% tip for waiting. However, he then demands $US 10 at which point the hustler joins in and says we agreed something separately with the driver. Both are told to ‘F*** off’ in no uncertain terms and we walk away & the guy doesn’t even get the tip just the 10MN agreed.

Hustlers or Jineteros as they are known locally are a pain –The city is pretty aware of the problems here and have loads of armed police walking around to make tourists feel safe and would definitely have come to our aid had we called them. Unfortunately the city is full of hustlers – more so than anywhere else in Cuba (almost akin to parts of India really) – everyone is on the make or tries it on. There are hookers at most joints that tourist frequent – live music shows, the local bars etc. Most of the time just ignore them or say ‘No Gracias’ firmly and it works. Even people begging can be a pain – so the same treatment works. What we have found strange throughout Cuba is the request for soap. However, we do meet one lovely old lady, Ann- Marie, a 71 year old peanut seller in Parque Cespedes. We don’t buy from her but she takes a shine to us and on our last night joins us for a sit and a chat in the square – and lots of hugs when we go. It’s a shame our Spanish wasn’t better – we felt she would have had some good stories to tell.

However, on a positive note unlike the India sub-continent & SE Asia, the kids do not beg here for money, sweets, pens etc. All seem to go to school in uniform and in the evening many seem to come to the square to do their homework, meet friends, or generally chill out – it’s probably more pleasant there than at home with no aircon.

Apparently there’s the best wreck dive of a Spanish battleship that sunk in 1886 75kms from here but there’s no dive centre or equipment available there. You can also snorkel and see the wreck as it’s only 15 metres down. Seems a wasted opportunity by the Cuban diving association – but diving seems to be a pretty under developed activity and pretty expensive even by international prices let alone Cuban prices. Another time perhaps……….maybe?

And so we start our journey back to La Habana, via Camaguey. Santiago is a very different part of Cuba. It feels a bit neglected and almost forgotten. But it does have soul.

Camaguey – The Catholic City in the centre of Cuba & another Cuban UNESCO Heritage City!

The Bus for Camaguey from Santiago leaves 5 mins early (7.55 am) after the baggage guys had asked for their C1 ‘present’. The 8 hour journey is a bit more of the same. We stop at Bayamo, Holguin (for lunch where M has 2 Hamburguesas he wanted to try all trip – ok & fills a gap as we haven’t had lunch. C is still fragile from the day before.) Then Las Tunas and finally Camaguey at 3.30pm bang on time. The owners have arranged a cab pick up C4 which is reasonable in a really clapped out American car that the guy had to jump start after rolling down an incline at the bus station – ingenious!

The Casa, Los Vitrales is an old convent converted into a home & B & B around a lovely courtyard. The owner, Rafael Requejo, an architect, gives us a great intro to the highlights of the city. He is an interesting character; he’s got a small section to himself in the LP guide. He’s good fun and talkative. His family have lived here for generations. He does have friends in France and has visited there a few times. He’d love to come to the UK but Visa restrictions have meant he hasn’t been able to so far.

Although Camaguey has reportedly one of the best retsaurants in Cuba, we decide to eat in at the CP while we are here. We have fish, great veg soup which was good for C as she wasn’t too well, Ropa Vieja with pork - really nice with black frijoles soup & finally chicken a la Creolla. All served with veg, rice, boniato (like sweet potato), salad, bread, pudding, fruit and coffee. Amazing value at 10C each.

As C is still feeling fragile we walk into the centre to go to The Gran Hotel at Rafaels suggestion – best hotel in town – and to the roof top terrace/bar to see aerial views of the city and take in sunset with a beer. It’ quite nice and pleasant here after the humidity of Santiago.

Over dinner we meet a Belgian couple (he’s retired and she still works) with the guy having just suffered a detached retina and after some quick laser surgery in Cuba is now to be flown home on Monday by his Insurers so he is stuck here & has to rest. He is multi lingual and a good conversationalist. There is also a Canadian couple from Montreal so C gets to practice a little of her French (and realises she needs to refresh big time!)

On the first night after dinner, we pop out to Parque Ignacio Agramonte where a full orchestra (town band) is playing as part of the 500 years celebration of the city. It’s pretty lively with folks dancing and singing along when a crooner joins the band. The square is full of families out in force having a great time. The Casa del La Trova (local music house with traditional music – every city has one) is next to the square – they don’t start till 10pm each night, but tonight its quiet.

Immediately next to our Casa is Parque Marti with a gothic church - one of its kind here - which looks very impressive lit up at night. And just along from there are some derelict buildings (although we saw later that folk were living there), on which are some amazing faces cut out of the plaster on the brickwork. There is nothing to say who they are or who made them ??

Rafael recommends a visit to the local Market (8am to midday), Mercado Agropecuario Hatibonico. There is a private sector bit and a public sector bit competing (unusual). It’s good fun and is the best one we have seen in Cuba. There is a herbalist, a veg section and meat section plus a nursery next door. It’s all very clean and tidy.

Unfortunately the road there has a lot of dog crap. And as we go across the river we notice that it is pretty dirty, full of discarded rubbish and smells. Unusual for a relativity clean country.

Next stop is Plaza San Juan de Dios, which is a really lovely square and has a Museo (an ex-hospital) which was run by Friar Jose Olallo Cuba’s first saint only anointed in 2008. The place is beautiful (though the exhibits pretty poor bar the black & white pictures of young dancing students at the local school). You can go to the top and get some superb views of the city – better than the Gran Hotel. So its worth the C1 entry fee + C1 for the camera if you are going to take pictures. The square has a lovely church which part of the Museo building and a small craft market set up as well. We have a coffee at La Campana de Toledo (which has a great setting and a courtyard worth a walk around in) and watch the world go by.

The Maceo – main boulevard with shops – has lots of supermarkets with all kinds of goodies, including washing machines (UK 60s & 70s style top loaders), souvenirs, fashion goods and all manner of toiletries - but no toothpaste!! At the end is Plaza Maceo where Bici taxis congregate and there are a few cafes and eateries. We’ve seen a few tourists going around the city in convoy either in American cars or in souped-up Bici Taxis which looks like great fun. Then purely by luck we come across the new Hotel de Marques (it opens tomorrow) – a refurbishment of an old colonial building - which has an awesome mosaic mural which guys are finishing off. We are invited to come in and look around and take pictures – the Cubans are pretty good at this. The guy is obviously proud of what they are doing and deservedly so.

Back at the Parque Ignacio Agramonte we pop into the Café Ciudad in the corner of the square which is a really interesting colonial building now a govt: run café, which we return to for coffee and beer later. We also try El Cambio Bar (Mojito & beer really cheap) as its dusk and watch the local scene unfold. The place seems to have this odd Cuban tradition where people can write on the walls. There’s something by Hunter S Thompson (remember Johnny Depp in the Rum Run?). There are hookers, pimps and hustlers around where there are foreign guys on their own, and people trying to make a deal on cigars etc

Worth a visit nearby is Plaza del Carmen which is small square with a Church at the end. On the approach the street has sculptures by Martha Jimenez Perez a famous local artist/sculptress, her studio is in the square which you can visit. She is influenced by the sewing machine as her mother was a seamstress and depicting women in various guises (an acquired taste at times we feel).

All in all, the stay in Camaguey was better than expected – perhaps because we didn’t expect too much – a day and a half would be more than enough if you are short of time. During the day you can walk along streets which are very colourful (though not quite Trinidad) and as it’s the 500 year celebration of its founding many buildings are being renovated, and Camaguey does look really nice at night light up.

Havana – one last time

As there are only 2 buses a day to Havana, we choose the night trip as we don’t want to spend another whole day in a bus looking out of the window. Hopefully we have made the right decision? We have dinner at the Casa & take a taxi at 10pm to the Bus stop – here we have the pleasure of meeting the most obnoxious bus official on any of our trips – she is most unhelpful and really rude to her staff as well. The Bus arrives and leave ½ hour late & as many seats are taken by single folk we end up in the back near the toilet – not a good move as their air has a smell or urinal. We do dose off and at about 2am 2 foreign girls get out at Santi Spiritus & we move a few rows up to make the rest of the journey more ‘comfortable’.

We arrive in La Habana at 7.30am – ½ late – and our taxi guy isn’t there so we have to pay C10 to go to our Casa in Calle Brasil. It’s too early to haggle for M. We do a deal with the taxi guy for the drive to the airport next day - only C15 when we were charged C25 when we got here! The Chez Nous guys are expecting us as we had rung ahead 2 days before – definitely a thing to do in Cuba for all Casa reservations or you may lose the place. This time however we are put up across the street on the 3rd floor in an apartment which resembled a boutique hotel room – very clean cut and modern interior. It was very comfortable even if the room was smaller, but it was ensuite rather than shared bathrooms so we’re happy bunnies.

We decide to just enjoy Old Havana –unfortunately the Photography Museum is closed and we decide not to try and do too much. We head for coffee at Café Santo Domingo on Obispo – alfresco – really good. Then we do a bit of catch up & admin stuff - internet & messages to family and friends, C’s glasses need fixing as they have come apart, buying toiletries (and we do manage to get toothpaste at last), water etc. Then it’s off to Europa for lunch – lobster tail and fish washed down with a few Mojitos and listening to Son/Salsa music. Just great!!!

The afternoon is more pictures and observing life till later when we go for a walk down the Paseo Prado and then the Malecon – our last night in H. We later decide to go to La Floridita – the famous Hemingway bar at the top end of Obispo. We have 2 Daiquiris – one The Floridita (the house special) and the Papa Hemingway (the drink created for him with pineapple juice in it). At C6 each a bit steep but a Havana institution so we had to give it a go. Not much to crow about really – really sour, the Floridita wins hands down for us if you have to choose. Having had so much for lunch we go back to the Europa and have more Mojitos and one Roast chicken to share – just about enough.

Next day more of the same but C is first in line for the Chocolate Museo/Factory for some local chocolates and a hot chocolate drink. She makes it.

Unfortunately it’s Sunday & things open later. The Europa where we plan to have our final lunch only gets going at 12noon and we have to catch our cab at 12.30pm – so not enough time. But C practices her Spanish, tells them our predicament and they invite us in at 11.50am and get the chef and barman running around! We have 2 awesome lobster tails and 2 really strong Mojitos, say lots of thanks – leaving an extra tip - and make it just in time for the cab to take us to the airport. It’s a long drive but we get there and after paying the C25 each departure tax we sit and wait it out as there’s not much to do in the airport

At 15.30pm we leave Cuba after an interesting time …… not sure if we will be back or not …. For la Habana and some diving perhaps??? But it has been an experience.

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