Casa's, cigars and old Chevy's

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Central America Caribbean » Cuba
September 28th 2014
Published: September 28th 2014
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Dean writes....It was a fearsomely dark and stormy night , lightening was illuminating the dark distant waters far below!......No just kidding, we had an easy and uneventful three and a half hour flight from Toronto to Varedero (Cuba). This is our story about travelling Cuba, I hope you enjoy!
Back in Canada....On arriving back in Toronto from Niagara Falls (we had two very nice relaxing nights staying in a beautiful B and B there) we decided that we would travel light in Cuba, we pulled everything from our back packs and put what we didn't need into one pack, plus left other things as well in a hotel we had booked across from the air port for when we returned after our three week stay in Cuba.

It was a long slow process clearing immigration at the air port in Varedero and when it was finally my turn I handed over my passport, smiled and heard a loud and angry shout from a small and attractive Cuban girl saying 'Look here, camera! I looked into the camera and then she smashed a stamp on to my passport and slapped it onto the counter, and with another angry shout said go!!' ...Welcome to Cuba I thought, Hmmm. After what seemed like ages waiting for our pack to come out, we were out among the touts trying to grab us and steer us into their taxi's, we had a transfer booked and luckily found our bus and off we went dropping off fellow tourists at their prospective resorts ( we think we could get use to the transfer thing, much easier and less hassle than doing it yourself in a strange place arriving in the dark).

We decided to have our first week of three in Cuba in a fully inclusive resort in the town of Varedero (it was actually cheaper to get a package deal from Canada with the air fares and resort price for the week than the air fares alone) and then just wing it with the remaining two weeks, fully inclusive you ask? Yep all the food and alcohol that one would like to consume while there including cocktails etc... We opted to stay at Sol Merinnas Coral, asked for a non smoking room and asked for the usual 'upgrade possible?' We were told we had a very nice room which turned out to be less than average and smelt of stale smoke! The food was terrible too but we had been warned by many that it often is in Cuba. After two not great nights there Di decided to have lunch outside away from the noisy and smokey dining room while I was lounging in the pool but, was told if she was to sit where she wanted to, that it was a possibility she may steal the cutlery, well, that was it, she hit the roof, oh and also complained to the concierge that we were less than happy with the hotel and its staff, he was very understanding and said we could check out another resort a few hundred meters down the road, we did , loved it and stayed there for the remaining five nights after paying a bit extra, well worth it!

Our new hotel 'Breezes' was an adults only resort so there was so much ambiance, don't get me wrong but when sipping a cocktail in a pool it is much nicer not to have ones glass splashed half full of pool water and parents constantly screaming at their horrid little off spring!

The food there was fantastic and the drinks the same standard you would get in a flash hotel anywhere in the world, the beach was amazing, with such crystal clear water that you could go out up to your neck ( this is on the Bahamas side of Cuba) and see a freckle on your little toe! One day I went out on a catamaran, I tried to talk Di into coming but her buggered shoulder was not up for it unfortunately, and it was fantastic with so many big fish around to feed with the few rolls of bread I had pinched at breakfast. It was only 5 to 6 meters deep so getting to the bottom and returning to the surface with some beautiful shells was easy. Other tourists on the catamaran wanted to keep them but I don't like taking these out of the ocean and needlessly killing the animals living inside so, after a good look I let them sink back to the bottom.

After our week in Varedero feeling well rested up we hopped on a bus down to Havana for four nights, which is a really busy full on city right in your face! It was a really amazing place to visit as it's like the clock just stopped in 1959 (after America issued a trade embargo) and nothing has changed since, all the old buildings crumbling around you as you walk along the big wide open boulevards and all the beautiful old American cars cruising around, the first thing I noticed with them was the lack of noise coming from them and to my surprise when I asked a local guys why, he explained that they now have Toyota, Isuzu and Mitsubishi motors in them, also brakes, electrics etc... I suppose it would cost a fortune these days to run them with the big V8's they came out with.

In Havana we stayed for the first time in a Casa Particular, which are usually family homes with a spare room or two which they rent to tourists, it is a really good way to see a bit of Cuban life . On our first day in Havana we were constantly stopped and told that it was indeed 'national cigar day' and they were half price, as it turns out it was national cigar all the remaining days we were there too! We were also stopped in the city by a lady trying to sell us her baby, but as I said we were traveling light! ...sorry bad taste, but true, some people there are very desperate!

But over all we found our whole stay in Cuba very safe and mostly friendly. In Havana we also visited what is known as 'The Earnest Hemingway Bar" or the Hotel Ambos Mundas) now because he would frequent this establishment many years ago and wrote several of his famous novels in the bar including 'The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The casa particular in Havana was quite nice with a decent breakfast for $4.00 and a seafood dinner including prawns, lobster and fish for $10.00 , we only had one dinner there as there was so many choices around the city. We did lots of walking in Havana but one day decided to pay $5.00 for the whole day on a hop on hop off bus that was a great way to see the city and surrounding areas. Back at the Casa they only had room for us for three nights , so we were told that for the one remaining night they would move us to their other casa which was actually closer to the city center, all good, we thought.
When we got there, we were taken a few doors down and into a dark, dingy and graffiti ed lobby, up a crusty and ancient elevator and into a very old mans home, while Di was filling out the usual forms with passport info etc, and wondering what the hell was going on, I legged it into the casa where we thought we would be staying asking ' what the heck is this hombre?' He said that if we didn't like it then he would show us alternative accommodation, I decided that I did not want to offend the old fella and the room it self was clean and after all it was only for the one night, so there we slept feeling every spring coming up through the mattress we decided that it must have been left over from the 50's as well!

The next morning, we were off again and were picked up early in a 1952 Chevy and taken the bus station for our next destination Playa Giron (also known as the Bay of pigs). It is there on the 17th of April 1961 a group of some1400 expat Cuban citizens living in America attempted an invasion that went terribly wrong as Fidel Castro got the heads up and was waiting ashore. The would be invaders were either killed or captured and a year later the survivors were sent back to America in return for fifty three million dollars in medical supply's, and baby food. Snorkeling near there a couple of days later I noticed one of the small sunken ships laying on the ocean bed from their failed attempt.

In Playa Giron we stayed in Luis Hostel which was recommended in our trusty Lonely Planet, when getting off the bus we noticed an Italian couple arguing over the fee of $1.00 for a ride on the local three wheeler bicycles that are on offer every where you go. As it happened the Italians were heading to the same place as us and, as we hadn't a reservation the race was on, we arrived there first and guess what ? ...the Italians had a booking, and unfortunately the casa were full bugger. Luckily for us there was a lovely apartment out the back which was separate from all the other rooms and much nicer! We think the Italians were a bit embarrassed that we had overheard their haggling over the $1.00 and avoided us during our stay including eye contact, maybe they had a conscience after all? The food is legendary at Luis's, just as was written in the LP, fresh sea food of every description flavoured to perfection, accompanied by fantastic salads and the local brown rice and as always the fried banana chips, yum yum!

One morning Luis told us about a great snorkeling spot just up the road. He advised us to get on the local bus just across the road from his casa at 9.30am for a ride to Punta Pedaz which is on the Caribbean side of Cuba, he also told us that a bus would return at 3.30pm, easy. Well the snorkeling we did there was fantastic with lots of colourful fish every where, we took out some bread here too and were instantly surrounded by squillions of fish, which were all the colours of the rainbow it seemed.
We relaxed there for a long time on sun chairs costing $ 1.00 for the day, then hoards of tourists turned up as day trippers from Varedero resorts, serenity lost, and it was time to get our bus back into the small town of Playa Giron, well, guess what? ....No bus, and only the odd Chevy going past which were full, it was stiffling hot so Di sat in the shade of a palm tree ( not taking my suggestion seriously that I could hide behind the palm while she showed some leg!) while I commenced to try and thumb a ride, almost two hour later with no luck, 'I know I had even shaven!' (my face!) A truck pulled up at the restaurant near us and we finally got a ride the 12 km into town with them, Di in the cab and me standing on the back of the big old truck with some local workers who offered me cigars, even with the obvious language barrier it was still a fun relieving ride back , just laughing and smoking the local cigars, I even shared some candy with them which they seemed to like.

We only had two nights with Luis but enjoyed the stay, even though the first night in the early hours in the morning there was a mini typhoon that shook hell out of the small apartment, the thunder and lightening was intense and water poured in through some of the louver windows. We later found out that the storm had hit Mexico and had done some terrible damage.

Our next stop was Cienfuegos for three nights which is a beautiful old town on the coast, that casa was run by a very nice couple and their house backed right onto a beach, they even had a big inflatable pool in the back yard which I jumped in to several times to cool off.. The owner Gibon was a right cheeky bugger, he asked if I would like to try a mojito (invented in Cuba as were the daiquiris), and of course I took him up on it. The first one being on the house and it was very easy after that to have a few more, I must say I acquired a taste for the mojitos that day but, have not had one since, very nice though! Gibon would stand beside his wife wearing an apron preparing and cooking all meals for us and on the second evening he was joking around and lifted up his apron and a big foam thing shaped like a penis sprang out! Well we cracked up but, when he did it later to another older couple from Austria they showed disgust and retired to bed early. I thought it as funny as hell and stayed up late having a few beers with him, but his wife was equally unimpressed with him that night but he still had a big cheeky smile on his huge scarred face!

The next morning after a great breakfast over looking the ocean we headed off in Gibon's old Fiat to Ranchos beach, him driving and a fellow scuba diver named Antonis in the back with Di , we dropped Di at the beach then Antonis and I were dropped off about 10kms down the coast where we kitted up into scuba gear and with spear guns headed into the crystal clear water. About 200 meters off shore it came alive with loads of big fish of all kinds of species, as we got down to about 20 meters I spotted five huge barracuda, so I lined up the gun and took a shot and hit one dead on, the barracuda went flat out straight down into the ocean floor below me jerking me about, but the head of the spear did not penetrate in far enough for the barb to flick out and the bloody thing got off, they are great eating I was told later.
When Gibon finally came to pick us up he wanted me to drive his old jalopy back to pick up Di, he wanted to judge my driving and give points for it like almost every thing else that I did, ( I got a 5 out of 5 for that drive!) my Spanish often was rewarded a big fat 0! Got better there though..... When we picked Di up we decided after a swim to head back into town and the casa, Gibon stopped in at a local garage and got us all some cold cervasas (beers!) which tasted great after the dive!

Later in the afternoon we had Gibon drop us into town as he was headed that way to pick up other guests from the bus station, it was cloudy , and when I asked about the weather prior to leaving he said 'no rain' so we left the umbrella behind, but as we were almost into town down the rain come and it was very heavy, after that I awarded him a 0 for his weather forecasting skills and we exited his shaky old car with a laugh and found shelter.After an hour or so it had cleared up enough for us to head off and check out the lovely town, take some pictures of all the beautiful old buildings and down the walking promenade.

After saying good bye to our hostess and big Gibon he again dropped us at the local bus station for our trip to Trinidad, it was a nice trip along the scenic coast. I had read in our Lonely Planet (LP) that the touts are particularly bad on arriving here, pushing their casa's onto you and telling people that the ones they have booked are shut down etc.... funny thing, after I led the way pushing through the throng of touts with their laminated paper casa advertisements slapping us as we made it out, a lady asked us where we were staying ,and when I told her she immediately went onto say that 'they are shut down now' ... had to laugh, and it made me think on how invaluable the LP books are when traveling.

We stayed in Yolanda Maria casa and it was more like an old palace than a casa, with lots of antiques and a very rare (I was told) Mexican stair case. Trinidad is a beautiful old town and a lot smaller than Havana so it was nice to stroll around the pollution free cobbled streets and see all the locals out the front of their homes smoking cigars and having their usual chit chat. There also seems to be a lot of cowboys there, racing around the streets bareback.

There are also some very posh restaurants in town all with great menus and silver service (but they still can't seem to get the taste right,or seem to over cook things). Most times when dining there would be three or four men singing and playing musical instruments in the restaurants, on one particular evening there was a power cut so we opted to go just across the road to a recommended restaurant. There were just the two of us dining at the time enjoying a 5 course candle lit meal and had three amigos singing and playing at our table! .... I'm pretty sure that was a romantic situation, it was certainly special!

We did a walking tour another day, which took us through a very rundown part of town where the local inhabitants would usually just have concrete floor and walls, maybe one chair or a crate to sit on in front of a very old television, but all seemed very happy and friendly. We also climbed up many stairs inside the 17th century convent and were rewarded with great views of the town and the coast in the distance. There are also several markets that seem to just spring up down the narrow streets and when they saw us coming I'm sure I noticed some hands rubbing together! They can certainly hassle a bit, but not over the top like some places in Asia, we did buy a few nic naks we wanted but, there is only so much room in a pack.

We enjoyed our three nights in Trinidad and the accommodation we chose, but it seems sometimes that things are lost in the translation. On our first night there I asked the lady owner of the casa, Yolanda if she could make us dinner (as an Italian couple said the food there was good) , she replied 'yes, it is possible' .......we are still waiting Yolanda! Haha!

We were at the time looking forward to getting back to the coast so we could swim once again in the clear blue waters ( the heat here was getting to us by this stage!), but we had one more stop before returning to Varedero for our flight back to Toronto ......Santa Clara!

It was an easy 3 hour bus trip from Trinidad to Santa Clara and we had some one again standing with a piece of paper with our name on it, for our transfer to our casa, easy, this one was another great choice out of the LP called Hostel Pergola, it was another old palace and it was spick and span and a very comfortable two night stay, the food we had there was great too.

I don't think I have mentioned that Cuba can be a very frustrating and confusing country to travel, the local people have their own currency that we can't use but some try to slip it in with your change after purchasing something, we were also told quite a few times that the Cubans only earn a mere $25.. a month! But then we would get in a car you are charged $10.00 for a fifteen to twenty minute ride! In Santa Clara we decided to try a local Cuban restaurant where they charge in their own local currency, (even though they did not mind taking our peso convertibles!) It was probably one of the best meals we had in the country and the bill including drinks for two came to $6.00

Most Travellers stop into Santa Clara to learn the history behind the revolution, led by one Che Guevara( Ernesto Guevara) who was originally from Rosario, Argentina and is still to this day a symbol of rebellion. There in the city is a statue of him and also the mausoleum where his body is kept. It is a nice old city and like the rest of Cuba has stopped in time. We visited a place in the city where Che in December 1958 led a group of 300 revolutionary fighters against the Balista regime on a mission in what was to be known as the battle of Santa Clara. They derailed a train carrying many Balista soldiers, Che himself drove a tractor into the moving train thus derailing it and capturing all soldiers travelling in the carriages and a lot of weapons and ammunition! Many years after living as one with the Cubans Che quietly left the country to try and start other revolutions in countries including Congo and Bolivia, the later seeing the end of a man who now is a legend throughout the world, he was executed in Bolivia on the 9th of October 1967 in front of C.I.A. agents.

After two nice nights and five hours on a bus we were back in Varedero where we had begun our trip, this time staying at a family run casa instead of the fully inclusive resort down the road, they were very nice people and made us very good breakfasts, our last couple of days were spent mostly between there and the beach or frequenting the many bars and restaurant along the strip. On our last day( I had booked the day previously a 1950 Chevy convertible) off to the air port we went, I told our driver how nice and smooth his huge car was and the next thing we knew he was pulling over and motioned for me to take the wheel and drive, of course I did and thoroughly enjoyed the experience while smoking a Cuban cigar on the way!

On that same day we went to a restaurant for our last lunch and had some seafood, we left feeling very happy and full, but just after arriving at the air port Di took a turn for the worse, and on it went with her spending most of the return flight to Toronto in the loo, she was still very unwell the two nights we stayed in a hotel just across from the air port and I was making trips to a Canadian food chain called Tim Hortons bringing her food back to pick up her strength. I also was not feeling the greatest and had a terrible heat rash but after some rest, cool air and good food we were coming right again for our onward flight to London via Dublin (In England Di had some tests done and the results came back clear , and we were then told that we had picked up a nasty virus while in Cuba).

It was great to be back in London since it had been four years our last visit, and I set out to get a box just the right size to do a post home to our friendly neighbours Sue and Mr Keith (They have been kind enough to hold onto our parcels we have sent home with all the bits and pieces we have picked up along the way that were weighing our packs down), and to get postage prices, while Di had a snooze, also I do recall dropping into a local pub on Finchley Road for a couple of pints!

After two nights staying in Palmer's Lodge (Swiss Cottage) we got on the under ground to Victoria bus station for our seven hour bus trip down to Plymouth to visit an old English friend we met while traveling Asia four years ago, Dominic, he very kindly gave up his bed for us choosing to sleep on his fold out couch, we did a few nice walks together around the lovely sea side city and enjoyed the views over the ocean from up on "The Hoe", one day there Dom and I walked over the other side of the city and returned to the side that his flat was on a local water taxi. Another day he took us to the beautiful old town of Totnes where a Kiwi couple Kris and Olivier whom we met years ago doing our English teaching course in Vietnam were living, we had a nice walk around their town together and a really nice catch up with them and then they dropped us back to Plymouth where we had a few beers in a water side tavern together before saying goodbye. They are going again for the 2nd year to run a ski chalet in France, them both being chefs too, they will be cooking the breakfasts and dinners there, they have kindly offered us a free weeks staying there with them when the owner is away and we may early next year in winter take them up on the offer!

From Plymouth we caught a bus back into London (Victoria station) and walked down the road and boarded one of the fancy new London Double Decker buses (by this stage Di had thrown away her failing old backpack away that was giving her sore shoulder hell and has now opted for the more comfortable suit case she pulls behind her on wheels, I'm still back packing it!) to Liverpool street train station for our ride to Manningtree near where Di lived until the age of Eight and where her lovely cousin Tina picked us up from and took her back to her place where she lives with partner Chris and two sons Dan and Sam, we were going to stay four nights there but that turned into five as Dan kindly offered a lift to Stansted air port, stopping us from having to have another night in London.

We got to catch up again with Di's uncle and aunt John and Una who we have previously stayed with on trips coming and going from Europe, they are also very nice and know where the best fish and chip shops are at the time. Sam and I had decided one day to have a few quite drinks at home then head out to a local bar, but after two ciders he was all done in and went off to nap, that left me on my own at a pub until Tina's brother Shaun joined me, after plenty Di and Tina come up there and rescued me and took me home, then dinner and zzzzzz I believe!

We had a lovely relaxing stay with Tina and she has been kind enough to invite us back there for a family Christmas dinner which we are planning on doing, we are very much looking forward to it as it's been a long time since we have had a family invitation to spend a Christmas meal get together!

We are now in Turkey for a month and then planning on spending that long in Greece too island hoping about, from there we have to get up into Savona in north west Italy by the 20th of November for a three week cruise that will take us down to Argentina. This is my second crack at writing our travel blog and I hope you enjoyed the read and it was not too long or drawn out!

Di will be doing the Turkey blog so that's all from me for a while, until next time, good bye.

The journey continues.........!

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4th October 2014

Great Blog
Loved your stories and photos of Cuba - brings back so many memories for me - we loved staying in the casas as well - we bought a lot of art work in Trinidad. Will need to catch up with you as we are planning to visit Turkey next year. Love and safe travels, Roslyn
5th October 2014

Thanks Ros!
Cheers Ros, we liked Cuba but think we picked the wrong time of the year to go as it was too bloody hot at that time! ...Very humid!! We would love to catch up again with you. We have got 2 more weeks in Turkey and then will island hop around Greece for almost a month we think, after that we leave from Savona in northern Italy on a 3 week cruise that ends in Sao Paulo, we will have 4 nights there and have a flight booked back to Amsterdam, having 4 nights there too as we want to be in the UK for Xmas with Di's family. Thinking now that we will extend the trip for another year away and spend the 1st six months of next year in the UK and travel for short trips to Europe from there. If you are in England or Europe in the 1st six months of next year it would be great to have a catch up!!

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