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Published: February 11th 2013
Shelley getting into the Cuban experience
Day 469 Tuesday 22nd
Today we started our journey back across this island to the town of Varadero and then eventually Havana for our onward flight to Panama. The bus wasn’t leaving Baracoa till 2 in the afternoon so this gave us time to walk the town once more and to check our email. After wasting an hour on a slow internet line in the Etecsa office we had one final look over Baracoa and felt glad we are moving on.
We sat on the front porch of our casa reading till our cycle rickshaw guys turned up around 12.45 to take us down to the bus terminal. The guys were really nice blokes and I asked about how they fared with hurricane Sandy last year and he told us that it didn’t come near them and it only was around Santiago de Cuba that got hit. We had thought that the town’s general appearance of looking like a disaster zone was the result of hurricane Sandy but in fact it was from Hurricane Ike the year before and perhaps it is just how the place is. It is utterly amazing how many
Getting the green light
damaged buildings and piles of broken concrete line the foreshore and to help keep up the look they are in the process of demolishing half the bus terminal. It is only a very small terminal and sort of have to laugh how they are still operating out of it whilst jack hammering away at the concrete roof.
Our bus arrived at 1pm and the driver sat in the bus till 2.05pm before letting anyone on board. He left the engine running all this time so it was air conditioned and had his wife and kids with him and allowed other friends on board to chat whilst all us schmuck passengers stood around in the sun waiting to get our luggage stowed and board. It is interesting how the drivers in Cuba seem to take their families with them and they always get the front seats, and combine this with all their shopping stops and you sort of feel like you are just an inconvenient aspect of their family holiday.
We were finally underway at 2.15pm and on our way back to Santiago de Cuba. As per usual our bus had broken seats and lots of stops for the
Band and dancer in bar La Bodeguita del Medio
family to do food shopping. Lucky for at one of the stops a woman came on board selling chocolate so we bought 3 bars and it was pretty good stuff, for something that is basically homemade. We had a connecting bus to get to Santiago that was taking us through to Varadero and it was due to leave at 8pm so as it got later we started to panic if we would make it in time but ended up not being a problem and we arrived at 7. A couple from Finland were travelling on the same bus and they managed to find a feed of take away pizza down the road so I ran down and picked up 2 for our dinner. Pizza over here is very popular and it is sold everywhere as small pizzas that are then folded up like a taco to eat. It certainly wouldn’t win any culinary awards but the pizza filled the hole and we could save our biscuits for breakfast. Whilst waiting to board our bus we got talking to a French woman who was 70 and travelling across Cuba by herself for the third time…a brave lass.
Boarded our night
Scott being silly at the Prado 12
chariot and was underway by 8.10 and we both settled into our seats and tried our best to get some sleep.
Day 470 Wednesday 23rd
As expected we didn’t get much sleep and part of the reason was how bloody cold the bus was. It was by far the coldest bus we have ever got and there was no way you could turn off the air vents and just had to endure the frigid air blowing on us all night. Michele reckons that maybe this was the temperature set in the Korean bus factory and no one in Cuba knows how to change it. The co driver made sure he had a blanket to keep warm under whilst all us passengers froze. Couldn’t wait for sunrise and at least that helped warm us fractionally. By the time we arrived at Varadero at 11.30 we just about had icicles growing on our noses.
We grabbed our bags, fobbed off the taxi drivers and walked out the front of the terminal expecting to find someone holding up a sign with our name on it but we didn’t find anyone. Stood around
The half demolished bus station
waiting for a while and noticed there was no one from any casas not even casa touts and only a handful of taxi drivers most of which wanted to take us to Havana. We thought our casa was picking us up but no one showed so we decided on a taxi but when we spoke to a driver and told him where we wanted to go he told us it was only 3 blocks away and we should walk it. The 3 blocks in fact ended up being 7 and so we were pretty buggered by the time we arrived at our new home “Mary and Angel”. The room looked great and once we had settled in we were informed that we couldn’t have the room for 4 nights but for only 2 and we would need to move on Friday. We were more than just a bit annoyed that we would need to move and that this wasn’t sprung on us till after we had settled, but we were too tired to do much about it. In hindsight we should have just stayed the two nights here and then moved onto Havana but in the end we just agreed
Box jellyfish on the beach
to move to another casa on Friday.
Probably should have had an afternoon nap but we were keen to see the area and so headed out to walk the town. Varadero is situated on a very long, very narrow strip of sand that juts out into the Atlantic and is Cuba’s number one resort town. Reading about the place we had a mental image of the Gold Coast but other than the two being on a long beach and best avoided there is no similarities at all. Up until recent years you could not stay in a casa particular here but had to stay in one of the resort type hotels that offer all inclusive deals (all food and drinks) but thankfully now casas are open for business and are everywhere. The bulk of tourists here are Canadians who fly directly to this town to lay on the beach and buy souvenirs. What is so surprising about this place is that the main road that runs down the centre of the peninsula is where everything happens and is filled with all the souvenir shops and restaurants and bars whilst the beach is almost a neglected after thought. There is
Choice of taxis
next to no restaurant/bars or even hotels that face onto the beach and considering the number of people walking the main street there is hardly anyone down on the beach. Part of the reason maybe because it is winter here and the water is a bit cold and also we discovered the sand littered with the carcasses of hundreds of box jelly fish…not very inviting. Rather than being this dynamic lively place we sort of discovered it to be one huge tourist stall that stretched for kilometres. Because private enterprise is now allowed and encouraged just about every house along the main drag and the side streets is filled with stalls selling tourist souvenirs. Unfortunately if you have seen one stall you have seen them all and the quality of the merchandise is horrendous. Most of the stock looks like rejects from the reject stores.
We spent the afternoon wandering the streets and the beach before stopping for a coffee and then heading home. Before heading out to dinner we spoke to a Canadian couple who put us onto an Italian restaurant nearby. Before going there we stopped at a bar where Shelley had her first drink in 17
Front yard souvenir shops
days…all silly things must come to an end.
Day 471 Thursday 24th
We had breakfast at the casa which as usual was huge and tasty before heading out to do some shopping. Wanted to pick up some tacky souvenirs and this seemed like the place to do it. Spent the entire morning and a good part of the afternoon walking this town’s endless collection of front yard souvenir stalls and we both came to the conclusion that it the world’s largest collection of tat. Wanted a t-shirt and discovered that most shirts were misshaped, stained and/or had crooked dodgy stitching. Likewise with handbags and anything else that involved fabrics or leather. We did manage to pick up a few things but the quality was atrocious.
Late in the afternoon we finally settled in a bar that was near the beach, which was the only one of two we spotted on our walk and had a couple of drinks before moving onto the Italian restaurant we ate at last night. The pizza was huge albeit fairly ordinary but with drinks it only cost us $17 so you can’t complain. On
the way home Shelley came up with the great idea to pick up a bottle of rum and some coke. Locals tend to drink rum here and if a group go to a bar they will buy a bottle of rum and sit around a table and drink it, and this is because it is so cheap. We picked up a litre bottle of Havana rum for $7 and it is bloody nice stuff except of course when you are silly and drink too much of it like we did.
Day 472 Friday 25th
Why in the hell did we buy that rum last night? It was all Michele’s fault and now we woke in the morning with filthy hangovers. If Lynn and Murray were here I know they would be giving us hell over this one. To make things worse for us we had to move to another casa today so we had to get up for our pre organised breakfast at 8.30 before starting our packing. We were already annoyed about having to move today and so were extra annoyed when they were trying to push us out
Great paint and panel beating on a Cuban car
the door early so they could clean our room for the next people whilst telling us we couldn’t move into the next place till after 12. Really felt like they didn’t care about us as long as we got out of the way and today this wasn’t going to happen fast.
We didn’t leave our room till 10.30 and had to demand that we wanted to shift our bags down to the new place now rather than coming back at 12 to do it. The new place was at the other end of the block and across the road so it wasn’t far but just so annoying to have to pack and shift. At the new place we were informed that we couldn’t have the room till 1.30, but we at least could drop off our bags. We both felt like crap and just wanted to lay down but were forced to wander the streets for hours waiting for our room. Managed to find an Etesca office and do some slow internet stuff and had a hangover lunch of hamburger and coke before getting back to our new casa at 1.30. Of course no one was home and we
Shelley pulling the beard of a bronze statue
were left locked out of our room till I got the shits and wandered all over the place trying to find the owners. Discovered them upstairs and at the back of this large jumble of a house where they were having a sleep. Once in our room we had a good lie down to try and recoup. Today was such a waste of a day half because we were so hung over but also because we had to move, but if you had to waste a day this is the place to do it.
In the late afternoon we finally made our way out for a walk and then onto dinner at a seafood restaurant and managed to get a good feed of Cuban Paella with drinks for 22 CUC’s.
Day 473 Saturday 26th
The casa we are staying at is perhaps the weirdest one we have stayed at because after we have moved in we haven’t seen the owners again. Because we are in the front room of the house we are sort of isolated from the rest of the casa and haven’t heard a single peep from
Great letter box
the owners and aren’t exactly sure where they stay, we had half expected them to knock on the door to get into clean or to hear them sweeping outside but we got nada. We popped in and out all day but didn’t once see one of the two women who let us in on that first day…very odd.
For breakfast we took a long walk right down to the other end of town to a café where for our trouble we got crap coffee and a crap feed. My ham and cheese croissant was so funny, as they got a small croissant, put a nugget of ham on top and then melted cheese all over the top of it…very strange. We then checked our emails and wandered the endless souvenir stalls in a fruitless search to find something unique or at the very least interesting.
At 1pm we wandered down to the beach bar and sat and watched the few brave souls paddling in the water. After a couple of cocktails we walked down to the water to find out how cold it is….and yes it is very cold. The southern coast of the island is technically in
Odd art fixture in a plaza
the Caribbean and at Playa Giron we thought the water was lovely and warm , but here at Varadero we are facing the Atlantic which is as expected freezing. Doesn’t help I guess that we are here in Winter and the day is overcast but sort of reminds me of Sydney beaches in September. Both the Finnish and Canadian couples we have met came here to avoid minus 30 degree temperatures in their home countries so I guess this place is pretty good when you look at it that way, but for us it wasn’t winning too many points. To add to the unattractiveness of the beach the whole place was once again littered with Box Jelly Fish.
Spent an hour or two back in our room before heading out for dinner at the seafood restaurant once more. Another great feed of Paella that was nice and cheap.
Day 474 Sunday 27th
Up at 8 and into the packing once more and by 9.30 we were ready to move on, but no one from the casa came around to collect their money or key. Around 10 I wandered upstairs
Outside the bar La Bodeguita del Medio
and managed to find the cleaning woman who was able to find the owner and we were able to pay and hit the road. Walked down to the bus terminal via a back road that took us through the residential area and past a baseball game just as a guy smacked a home run. It is so strange being in a country obsessed by Baseball rather than football. We had contemplated getting a taxi to Havana as we had heard they are not that much dearer than the bus but when we arrived at the terminal there was not a single taxi or tout to be seen….you know the adage about when you really need something and you just can’t find it? Ended up resorting to plan B which is just to get the bus. The Viazul bus wasn’t leaving till 11.35am, which gave us an hour to sit around and look bored…something we have become experts at. This is our last bus trip in Cuba and perhaps our last bus trip in Latin America for a while, and to be honest we are feeling pretty happy about it. The bus turned up at 11.20 and had to fight to
Inside the bar La Bodeguita del Medio
get our bags and ourselves on board before we were underway. The trip was fairly short and through unremarkable terrain and we hit Havana at 2.20pm. Lucky for us the bus was able to drop us at Centro Havana only 4 blocks from our Casa rather than at the bus terminal, an expensive taxi ride away.
It had been raining today and the ground was wet and covered in puddles so it wasn’t fun trying to retrieve our main backpacks whilst holding onto our day packs (ensuring neither gets wet) and fobbing off taxi and casa touts….something I will not miss when we stop travelling. Got to our Casa and had Lisette’s Mother let us in, and once again we had woken her from her sleep and she was still in her nightie. We had been worried about her forgetting our booking, but it wasn’t a problem and we had a room ready for us.
Dropped our bags and headed out the door to get a bite to eat and a look around. It feels so good to be back in this town; Cuba is a great place, and Havana is just the absolute best place on the
The old fridge inside the bar La Bodeguita del Medio
island. We were both feeling really knackered but kept walking all afternoon taking in the vibe once more and along the way managed to catch the filming of an episode of the Amazing Race. I guess after all the travelling we have done it was inevitable that we would at some time stumble across this production. We think it was the Russian or Israeli version of the show and it was sort of fascinating watching how some of the scenes were shot. Seeing competitors running down Obispo Street with trays of drinks chased by camera crews was sort of odd watching without that dramatic music playing. After this tiny brush with fame we headed home for a shower and a spruce up. For dinner we walked down the Malecon and chose a restaurant we had avoided last time but tonight we decided to give it a go. Ended up being a really, really bad decision and the food was horrible and the prices high. The meal cost us 24CUC, when it should have cost us around 18 CUC, but they hit us with all these extra hidden charges. This is probably the biggest problem in Cuba today as a tourist
Bronze of Ernest Hemmingway inside the Floridita Bar
as some places just look at you as just a money bag and try every scam they can think of to rip you off. In the end they may have got us tonight but they won’t get us again and on top of that we can leave a review on tripadvisor….so as a word of warning don’t go to restaurant El Portal.
Afterwards we wandered back to the bar/restaurant Prado 12 for a few beers and cocktails….at least this place knows how to look after tourists.
Day 475 Monday 28th
Ah Havana how great to be in your warm embrace once more, except it is bloody cold. Winter has finally hit here and it is amazing the temperature difference from when we were first here, and it is a lot more windy. The tourist crowds don’t seem as bad either, although maybe we are getting used to them after Varadero. Up out of bed by 8 and getting ready for the day and hot footed it down town to Cuba’s premier Cigar Factory to do a tour. Unfortunately the tours are not happening and when we enquired at the
Scott getting Ernest
adjoining store that sold cigars, the guy at the counter went off his head about how he has been waiting all month for the tours to start and that they just aren’t happening. Suggested we try one of the other two factories in town but claimed as far as he knew they were no longer doing tours either. Shelley was really disappointed about not being able to see into a cigar factory and to add to the disappointment was the astronomical cost of the cigars. I guess not being smokers we were sort of shocked at the cost of the large cancer sticks. To get a quality cigar the prices ranged from $5 up to $30 a cigar, you can get cigars on the street for less than a dollar but we had been warned that they are basically rolled up toilet paper and best avoided.
After this large set back we headed down into old Havana to the Paris Café where we had picked up a good breakfast on our first day in town. Back then we had got good food and a great coffee, but today we just got shit. Our sandwich took forever to turn up
shelley at one of our favourite Havana bars
and had frozen ham on it, the coffee was rubbish, the service was appalling…..one day it is great the next it is crap, it is so random. Stormed off from that disaster to discover that the museums we wanted to visit were closed due to some sort of public holiday and the streets were filled with school kids parading around holding pictures of their favourite dead revolutionary….which turned out to be mainly Jose Marti and glad it wasn’t Chavez or Fidel. We ended up stumbling across a small Cigar shop and picked up some cigars as gifts, splurging on good ones for others and a $1 for ourselves. Had intended to smoke a cigar here but to be honest we both hate the smell of the things and Shelley has redeveloped an allergy to the damn things. It is amazing how entrenched the smell of cigars are in this town, it is absorbed into everything and is unavoidable.
With all todays plans going out the window our only course of action was to drink, and to drink like a famous Cuban part time resident. We know next to nothing about the famous American Novelist Ernest Hemingway other than he
Ship entering Havana Harbour
wrote books we haven’t read, and he spent a lot of time in Cuba. Despite his success as a writer his life was filled with depression and alcoholism plus many accidents that left him in constant pain. He was wounded in World War 1 and survived two plane crashes in Africa, the second whilst being flown to hospital for treatment from the first one…talk about bad luck. He lived on and off in Cuba between 1938 till 1960 and whilst here writing blokey type novels he enjoyed getting smashed on Cocktails and Daiquiris. He certainly enjoyed sweet sugary type drinks, and in Havana two of his favourite bars are a Mecca for Tour groups and people on Hemmingway pilgrimages. We first stopped at the bar La Bodeguita del Medio where Hemmingway claimed made the best Mojito in the Havana/Cuba/World. Things have changed since Earnest came here to get drunk with his mates as these days they only make the worst over priced Mojito in Havana/Cuba/World. It is a tiny bar and tour groups come pouring in here 15 at a go to skull badly made drinks before making room for the next 15. We got inside in between groups and
got an average Mojito before the crush hit and then for some stupid reason stuck around for a second drink which the rum bottle was only waved over the glasses. A good Mojito takes about 5 minutes of care to make, but watching a guy make 15 in less than a minute makes you realise that this place is best avoided other than for the novelty/history side of things. Over the bar is the written signed testimony by Hemingway that this is the best place for Mojitos, and to me it hangs there almost screaming at you “Hey stupid, yes you, don’t you know Cuba has changed?” Boy I bet if Hemingway was alive he would be retracting that statement. Lucky for us we managed to only get charged for two rather than four drinks, and considering our second had next to know alcohol in it we thought that was fair and left.
Next stop was up at the Floridita (little Florida) bar where Hemingway claimed made the best daiquiris in Havana/Cuba/The World. Once again I am sure he would be regretting such drunken statements that have carried down over the years with no sign of a royalty cheque.
Us at sunset on the Malecon
This place was a lot bigger than the last bar but was once again invaded by hordes of tour groups that would parade through for a photo shot and a quick drink before moving on. As is customary for us, we stuck around for two rounds and took in the circus, but just like the other bar the Daiquiri here was crap and we think had the rum bottle just waved over it. At $6 a pop you were not likely to sit here drinking them all night hopping you would get pissed. At the end of the bar is a bronze statue of the man who has that look on his face that seems to say “you silly schmucks, I was pissed when I said the Daiquiris were good here”. I sure hope the guy got his drinks for free at these places for his glowing endorsements.
Unsurprisingly drinking at these places made us none the wiser on Hemmingway other than perhaps he could have chosen better places to hang at or that there is a buck to be made from his name. After our brush with his life we headed to look some more over the town
Classic Thunderbird on the Malecon
before heading home.
For dinner we wandered down the Malecon to Castropol Restaurant which is the best restaurant we have eaten at in Cuba. The food is sensational and isn’t overly pricey…a real gem. Of course on the way back we had to stop at Prado 12 for a few drinks and enjoy the guys playing music for us.
Day 476 Tuesday 29th
Had a small sleep in before hitting the streets again, with our first stop at Prado 12 for breakfast…. finished yesterday there so it seemed appropriate to start today here. From here we walked around the entrance to the harbour to Castillo de la Fueza (the castle of the royal force), which is reputed to be the oldest fortress in Latin America. It now houses a small Naval Museum, which Shelley felt she had to drag me too. I don’t know why she feels I need to see these things because as per usual she spent hours pouring over all the displays whilst I stood around looking bored…what you have to do for love!
The real downside to this museum is that in every room
an “attendant” felt compelled to give you a guided tour of the room, all for a tip of course. Probably could be worth a tip if they could speak English and had something to tell you other than pointing at a canoe and saying “canoe”. When you politely decline their services they get rather snooty, which sort of takes away from the experience after about the fifth room. We did manage to climb the tower in the castle for great views over the city. The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent walking back around the old town picking up the last of our must have souvenirs which included a surprise purchase. Wandering through the second hand book market Shelley started talking to a woman selling old currency and before we knew it we had picked up possibly my favourite souvenir from the whole trip. The market is filled with people selling massively overpriced (dare I say tourist rip off) books and souvenirs so we are fairly certain that we paid too much for what we got but I don’t really care as I love our purchase. For $15 we picked up three near mint Cuban bank notes
The Malecon seawall
from 1960, which was the first of the two years Che was the head of the Cuban Reserve bank and so the notes have his signature on them plus some extra notes with Che’s image. The signatures of course are printed on but it is such a unique piece of history that I just love them. Lots of guys are selling them, maybe they are fakes, maybe we paid too much but nevertheless they will be my trip tressure. Shelley always says I have an eagle eye for noticing things like this but she just proved that she has developed one herself. With our booty in our hands we made our way back to our room.
Late in the afternoon we got dressed up for a sunset stroll down the Malecon. It was a great way to spend our last sunset in this amazing city, walking with the locals taking in the crumbling Havana buildings and of course checking out all that old American iron on the road. Dinner was once again at the Castropol followed by drinks at Prado 12 with our last serenade by the bars musical trio. We both love Cuba and especially Havana and it
Sunset and the Malecon
is so sad that tomorrow we are moving on, we could stay here forever.
Day 477 Wednesday 30th
Time to move on and leave Havana and we are really sad about leaving this amazing place, but as George Harrison said “All things must pass”. Our day started with us paying for our room and heading out to get some breakfast. Our regular haunt Prado 12 wasn’t open yet and so we headed off to another café we had been too, where we were told that they didn’t have any food this morning. All this is so typical Cuba, and so random that all you can do is shrug your shoulder and move onto another. Finally got a feed at an overpriced café a long way from home and the service was again typically Cuban, slow and without graces, but we are used to this now and just roll along.
Back at our home Lisett was keen to get us out of our room as new tenants were due so we finished our packing and got her to mind our bags while we had one last quick look over town.
Prado 12, our most favourite bar in the world
Finally got that photo we were searching for, Michele with a cigar at the wheel of a Chev, nothing says Cuba more than that other than a queue to pay a bill. We had worked out our money fairly tight to make sure we didn’t have much left as we are fairly sure CUC’s weren’t really welcomed anywhere else in the world, but we allowed ourselves one last beer each at the Prado 12 bar before leaving. At 1.45pm we said our final farewell to the staff before walking back to Lisset where our taxi was waiting (they always turn up early). Said goodbye to Lisset and got our taxi out to Havana airport, all the way taking photos of Yank tanks.
The airport is a fairly modest affair but is modern with a good array of shops. Once we got our boarding passes we headed straight through immigration and waited at our gate. We had 5 CUC’s left and so Shelley picked up some chocolate just to make sure we had nothing left.
At 4.30 we boarded our plane and were in the air by 5 and on our way to El Salvador. When booking these tickets
The musical trio at the Prado 12
online we picked a direct flight to Panama and everything said that was what we were getting till after we paid when up popped up the details again which showed we had been put on a dual flight. So first we flew to San Salvador where we had an hour at the airport before then flying to Panama City. Landed at 10.30pm and breezed through immigration and customs like old pros (professionals that is) and got out some cash from an ATM. Our planning on coming to Panama was over 18 months and 16 countries ago so we had completely forgotten what currency they use here so it came as a complete surprise when we got a fist full of US dollars…well that makes it easy.
We got a taxi for the long drive into town and the place looked incredible as we drove in on the freeway…this is a huge city. We are staying at the Autograph lodge which is located in the city centre, and the driver had to take a very twisted route to get there because of all the one way streets. We arrived around 11pm, but got a great welcome and had a long
A typical Cuban ham and cheese sandwich
chat with the guy at reception before getting in our room and finally getting to check our emails and posting a blog. I think it was around 1am before we finally crashed.
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