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Published: June 26th 2011
After a 16 hour plane ride, another 2.5 hour plan ride, a night in Cancun, followed by another 2 flights we finally landed in Santiago de Cuba, what had to be more than 48 hours after we left Sydney. Needless to say we were very tired, but at the same time very excited to begin our adventure. What we really wanted to do was just eat and have a sleep, but we decided to go out to dinner and walk around for a bit. Lucky we did as we ended up having one of our best nights in Cuba. Turns out it was the last night of the Festival del Sol or Festival of the Sun in Cuba. The main square was packed with the locals just hanging out dancing and listening to the live music. We ended up having dinner and then a few drinks after at the hotel Casagrande which had a balcony overlooking the festivities in the square bellow.
Before I go on I want to explain our accommodation of choice in Cuba, normally we would stay at a backpackers hostel, however cuba doesn't have these so instead the cheapest option is a casa particular, which is
someone’s home that has usually 1 or 2 rooms for rent. I was pleasantly surprised by all of the casas we stayed at they were all very beautiful homes, usually with a roof top eating area or quart yard balcony or something, and the rooms were all very nice, with new finishing’s, they usually provided you with a stoked fridge in your room and most had a private bathroom. The one complaint they had is their mattresses must be as old as their cars, which is to say I don't think they have had any new mattress imports since the 1950s. Even the night we spent in a nice hotel (will come to this later) the mattress was horrible!
Our next two days in Santiago de cuba we spent exploring the city, and we quickly learned that everyone in Cuba is in tourism. The way cuba works with tourism is you have everyone asking if you want a taxi, however only a few people actually have cars, so the people asking if you want a taxi are probably jinteros who will actually just find one of their buddies for you if you need a taxi. We also had people
walking up trying to give us impromptu tours of the city, their opening line is always "where you from!" When Grant says Australia they say oh! Kangaroo! Skippy! and when I say los Estados Unidos, they usually get all excited because everyone seems to have family living in the states, usually in Florida. Anyway we actually really got along with one guy in Santiago de cuba we meet walking on the street and we let him give us a tour of the whole city, we saw where the Buena Vista Social Club first started playing, Fidel Castros school a house from when he was growing up, and house where he lived when he was a bit older as well (Now he lives outside Havana though) and the best part of this trip was he took us to his friends house who he said worked in a cigar factory, and he had all kinds of cigars on offer. Grant ended up getting a box of Cohibas and a box of Monte Cristos for 80 dollars, which the Cohibas if you buy legally are more like 350 dollars a box in Cuba. We looked when we got back to oz and we
found for 34 AUD one Monte Cristo which was the less expensive one in cuba! There are 5 things you need for a box of cigars to be legal from Cuba, we didn't know this yet as it was only our 2nd day, you need a certificate inside the box, check, you need 2 stickers on the outside sealing the box, one of a dollar sign and one that says Habana, check and check, a date stamp on the bottom of the box from the factory, check, and the last piece we did not know about is a hologram above the dollar sticker, no check here. Grants cigar boxes had everything but the hologram. Let me jump ahead to the tour we did of a cigar factory in Havana. We learned on the tour that there is usually a school of new employees learning how to roll cigars, and these cigars are all made with the same material, all look the same, but when placed in the flow machine do not always pass the test, some might be rolled to tightly or to loss. All of the employees are allowed to take home 3 cigars a day. So we assume
that Grant's cigars are real from a real factory, some might be student ones though, but they more than likely all would have come from the three a day the workers are allowed to take with them.
After Santiago de Cuba we took a very long bus ride (6 hours?) to Camagüey. We were only staying in Camagüey for 1 night, and were planning on taking the bus at 2 in the morning to move on to our next city, however our cabi from the bus station to the hotel offered to drive us for not much more than the bus was going for and he would pick us up at 6 in the morning so we could get some real sleep instead of 2 in the morning, sweet! So we spent the evening exploring the city, Camagüey is filled with winding streets intentionally built as a labyrinth to confuse pirates in the 1500's. Luckily we were not in any hurry to get anywhere and we spent the afternoon and evening getting lost. The only other thing I have to say about Camagüey is Cuba does not do international food well at all! We had just enjoyed the last
2 nights eating fantastic Cuban food made by the lady at our casa, to cold ham lasagna, gross.
So the next morning at 6 in the morning we set off on the 4 hour cab ride to Trinidad which only cost us $80 between the both of us! Pretty good deal considering the guy then had to turn around and drive 4 hours back! Trinidad is completely different from any other Cuban city we visited. The entire central party of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is completely unchanged, its cobblestone traffic free streets has much more of a village feel than any other Cuban city. Also Trinidad has an amazing beach, its about a 20 min drive from the city but it is gorgeous! We liked Trinidad so much we decided to stay 3 nights instead of the original 2 we had planned. The casa we were staying at had a particularly good cook, and we got to experience our first of many lobster meals of the trip. $10 pp for a butterfly lobster tail, rice beans, fruit, salad, plantain chips, pretty good deal. We also did some snorkelling in Trinidad, which I liked very
much because the water is so warm in the Caribbean! Also very clear, we didn't see too many notable things here just lots and lots of pretty fish and coral, I got to hold a star fish, we did see a lion fish though which is apparently pretty poisonous.
The next day we headed off to Cienfuegos, which we only had one night here due to our extra night in Trinidad. We decided to stay in Punta Gorda, which is a peninsula outside the city, we decided to miss the usual city sights here not going to the main square of the city, and instead just explored where we were staying. During the day we went down to the Punta or point where there is a park that just blasts music and has a bar on it, and the locals kids just hang out in the water, people have picnics and it being a Saturday, most groups had a bottle of Rum to split between them. This seemed to be a recurring theme in Cuba, they split a bottle of Rum instead of buying individual drinks and just drink in straight! Yuk! Anyway that night we went to club
Cienfuegos which is a three story mansion that looks like it should be a museum or embassy or something in fact it houses several restaurants and bars. We just happened to come on a night they had a dance performance on, it was pretty good actually you could tell it was definitely for the locals, not many tourists make it here, I’m not very schooled on dance types but I think it was ballee and contemporary, but between the dance performances they had singers come out in full on sequined suites singing Latin pop, pretty hilarious.
The next day we moved on to Havana where we would meet up with Lauren and Jess! The casa we stayed at was in Centro Habana, which the guide book says "For many visitors the crumbling buildings and bustling streets of Centro Havana crammed between the hotel districts of Habana Vieja and Vedado, are glimpsed only through a taxi window en route to the city's more tourist-friendly areas" That pretty much summed it up when we were driving in the car to get there by the son and friend of the lady we were staying with in Cienfuegos so they didn't know the
Playa del Ancon
i'm the little dot out in the water
city, didn't know where we were going, looking around I was like where did I book us into. But once we finally found the place lugged our stuff up the 3 flights of narrow stairs, the inside was completely redone and was very nice. We spent the first evening just hanging around our place as we were expecting Lauren and Jess to arrive. At one point we heard some really loud music close, by we peaked our heads out on one of the balconies and in the street bellow was an impromptu dance performance or contest or something, again with the singing in between the acts, people walking by or who probably did the same thing we did were curious about the noise stopped by to watch. This as the guide book said being a residential area missed by most tourists, were seemed to be the only tourists there which was pretty cool. That night we went out to a bar with live jazz music sat in the street and had some mojitos, which let me say you only need one of these! I swear they are like 3/4ths Rum! Lauren and Jess didn't end up getting in until about
We climbed a lookout tower that was built in the days of sugar plantations to oversee the grounds
4 in the morning so I was very excited when I was surprised and excited the next morning when I found out they had made it ok! We spent the next few days just exploring the old town, went to one of the revolutionary museums, which would have been interesting if it wasn't ALL in Spanish, but its just one of those things you have to do when you are a tourista. One day we also did a city tour in a pink and white 1952 Convertible Buick in amazing condition, pretty cool. in One night we went to a jazz club above an old abandoned shopping centre odd place for a jazz club but good music, and after we went to casa de musica in Miramar, which was really cool, we got there pretty late, but there was probably about a 20 piece jazz band playing on stage and everyone dancing to the music. We tried to salsa dance as well but mostly just got made fun of as the white girls with no rhythm, it was still fun.
After a few days in Havana we decided to get out of the city and went to stay on
Dance performance in Havana Street
View is from our balcony in Havana
one of the Playa del Este beaches, we opted for Guanabo which was not the prettiest of beaches, but the nicest beach Santa Maria was also the most touristy and didn't have any casas. So we found a Casa right on the beach with two rooms, Guanabo was a tiny town with a nice feel, and we actually found an Italian restaurant that changes my mind about Cuban international dishes, the Calzone I had was not bad. We did make a day trip to Santa Maria, which was a pretty beach, we had a seafood platter on the beach for $30 for both Grant and I, lobster, fish, prawns, calamari, mint pineapple, papas fritas, so good! And of course a few pina coladas on the beach! All brought direct to us of course, they even set up a table on the beach for our seafood platter! It was sooo good the girls must have been jealous they decided to get one as well.
After our beach break the girls had to head off as their vacation was over and we went back to Havana for our last 2 nights in Cuba. We decided we wanted to treat ourselves the
last 2 nights so we were staying at the Hotel National, one of the old grand hotels from the gangster days. As we had already done all of the touristy stuff we just got to chill out, we enjoyed the pool and the grounds at the hotel, which it had a yard overlooking the water, and when I say yard this is an understatement it was really grounds, it was huge and amazing. The interior was still pretty old, and the carpet in the hallway was an awful blue, and the power went out a few times, one time when we were trying to leave our room, so obviously the lifts were out, everyone was trying to use the stairs in the pitch black, a little dangerous! haha, but it only lasted like 10 min seemed like forever though! We went back to the jazz club over the abandoned shopping mall again one night because grant was into the live jazz music so much. And our Cuba holiday was at an end the next morning we were off to a flight back to Cancun, and then overland on to Belize!
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