A Travellerspoint blog

Our last days in Cuba

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We left Baracoa a few days before we had to fly out of Havana, the 12 hour bus ride to Camaguey was amongst the worst. Mostly because we had zero water and at the stopover in Santiago they had no water at the store so it was a litre of Pineapple juice each to get us by! Not ideal. On top of this was a Canadian guy behind me intent on talking off the ear of two German girls, not even my iPod cranked on high could drown the man out, then, the driver puts on a consecutive three terrible movies, all in Spanish and all at high volume. It was a very long bus ride. The few good points were relished, I enjoyed an awesome sunset out my windows in the evening listening to excellent tunes and we found some delightful peanut slabs at the "dinner" stopover (I highlight dinner because we pulled up on the side of a residential street where there were about 6 stands selling sweets, cigarettes and giant 3 kilo wheels of cheese).

We made it to Camaguey around 9pm were the casa mama showed us to our giant room, fed us a banquet and sent us to bed. Camaguey was solely a stopover for us also, so next morning was back to the bus station in the same old guys taxi that was slowly falling apart, the taxi not the old guy! Although the old guy looked like he enjoyed the glory days. After another 9 hours in a bus I was getting fed up and ended up yelling at a cab driver. He wasn't impressed but I am a foot taller so he wasn't taking any chances.

To blow off the cobwebs of too many buses we went for a walk to find our old watering the hole. The sight of our first Mojito and where we would soon get addicted to shots of espresso mixed with shots of Havana Club Especial. Anyone in Airlie Beach, its better than an Agua Bomb, believe me!

With our only free day in Havana we decided to head out to the beach. You pay $5cuc each, for a round trip and get to see parts of Havana, a great view over the bay, the fortress that guards Havana and an option of about 5 different sections of the beach to visit. Santa Maria del Mar is a beautiful white sand beach stretching for miles, some resorts back onto it, but in places there is public access. Soaking up the last of our Cuban sun, getting slammed into the shallow sandbanks as we body surfed and watching with humour as a couple tried casing us to rob our stuff (we were aware thanks to the police officer with the worlds best monobrow giving us a heads up, I'm talking one, solid centimetre thick eyebrow), was a great way to end the crazy adventure that was Cuba.

Again, that night we went back to our bar and had a few more espresso rums; never have more than three or you wont sleep again! We headed to another bar with an American traveller (Americans can enter techniqually still illegally by not getting a stamp on your passport. I think this year they are opening their borders) where a few women sitting outside, I think they were hookers, turned a said "Hey ladies, you looking for a boyfriend?" deciding to play the game I said "Ok sure. What you got?"
So Cuba Hooker #1 calls over her friend, "What about him?" she asks.
Me: "Ah, no, he's too short."
Hooker 1#: "Oh, what you like?"
Me: "Tall, Muscly, Guapo (Handsome)" I'm thinking, I've seen these guys standing around, she hasn't got one who fits that description.
I was wrong. Running over the road comes a guy that has clearly spent far too many hours in the gym with far too many steroids. Crap!
Hooker #1: "Him?"
Me: "Yeah, he's ok."
The poor guy, who doesn't speak any English gets embarrassed and runs back across the street only to gather himself together and return 10 minutes later. In the meantime, Cuban Hooker #1 and friends proceed to bring out an array of men, all shapes and sizes for us. After about 15 minutes of bantering with them, where hooker #1 confirmed that we did not need to pay, I eventually say "You got nothing for us. We'll try our luck elsewhere.", off we go home, escorted by two gentlemanly street dogs, laughing at the ridiculous scene we left behind.

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It was sad to have to say goodbye to Cuba, I wish we had stayed for maybe a week or so longer to explore the north coast. But I guess it just means I will be planning a trip back! The sadness was momentarily forgotten on the ride to the airport as we had torrential rain, the puddles were the size of Olympic swimming pools about a foot deep, there was no drainage on parts of the highway, our driver said in another 10 minutes we wouldn't have been able to get through! He spent the entire drive singing don't worry be happy.

Back at the airport, our flight was late purely because the airport didn't have enough gates for us to board our flight. Our original gate was moved downstairs, but that had a backlog and were moved back upstairs again to be bundled on and off we went with free top shelf bourbon and a packet of Lays.

It was Adios Cuba, Hola Mex!

Posted by TakeOnTheWorld 12:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Baracoa - our final destination

My favourite place in Cuba

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After Santiago we headed down to what was described to us as one of the best areas in Cuba; Baracoa.
The main attraction of the Guantanamo Region, Baracoa is a relatively small town on the coast with black sand beaches and one hectic night life.

Bummer for us, were arrived in the middle of their massive 'annual' storm. In the drizzling rain, our 'taxi', who was sent by the Casa owner, loaded our bags onto his three wheeled bicycle and motioned for us to jump on the seat in the back. We had our reservations about this poor old guy cycling us across town on his one geared, 30 year old bicycle. Half way across town we offered to switch with him so he could have a breather but the old guy was adamant he could handle it and started racing one of the other bicycle-taxis to prove it.

We were pleasantly surprised with our casa, the agent who had booked it for us told us it was the best place in Baracoa, of course they all say this. Turns out we had the top floor to ourselves, with two double beds and big bathroom, two balconies and a view over both the beach and the town. We had hit jackpot yet again with our casa and the owners were an absolutely lovely couple with some serious kitchen skills.

With not much else to do in this weather and plans to meet up two Belgian girls we had met on the bus, we made our way to the Parque Central and met a bartender who was clearly very confident in his mojito skills.
"If you don't like it, I will pay for it." He said as he smashed up the mint and lime.
"Deal."
He didn't need to pay for it, he knew, he makes that best mojitos in Cuba!

When a local guy sat next to us started to take pictures of us with his iPhone we decided this was too weird and split for the Casa de la Trova.

Casa de la Trova, a bar that is entirely too small to fit everyone wanting to listen to the live music, so you stand outside and the bartender comes to you.
The bartenders here were an absolute blast and one reason we kept coming back; a short stocky guy who claimed to be a Nelson Mandela look-a-like (maybe he had glaucoma or a very dark bathroom, I don't know) and a Latino with possibly the best mullet I have ever seen that went by the name of Patrick Swayze. Spending most of their time outside giving everyone their own celebrity names, these guys had the best job going. I went from Kate Winslet to an Olympic Ninja, back to Kate Winslet and finally to Penelope Cruz. With flattery like this, who wouldn't comeback for more.

The first few nights, we headed up the giant flight of stairs to El Rancho, one of the two crowded clubs in town. An open air nightclub with a view over the town was a perfect place to let loose and let loose we did. With some seriously terrible salsa moves and once again Cat busting her free dancing, it was a sad hour when they turn the lights on and the music off.

One bonus of the storm was the entertainment I found one day walking along the Melicon while Cat napped. With the waves crashing high over the barrier, the local guys were making the most of it. Stripping down to their shorts, they would sit with linked arms up against the barrier and wait. A giant waves crashed over the Melicon and they would get absolutely nailed; a good wave sending them sliding off the sidewalk and into the wide street. Then, they jump up and race back to wait for the next one. Of course having to get Cat to see this, the guys spent half the time trying to convince us to jump in with them. After seeing one of their backs all torn up from the sidewalk but still going back for more, we gave it a miss and when I ran into them later that night they spent 5 minutes showing me their war wounds from the morning. They certainly know how to make the most of every situation in this country.

With the crappy weather persisting it wasn't until day 4 that we actually headed out on an excursion to Playa Blanco (white beach). Following the foggy directions of a travel agent, we made our way 2.5km down the black sand beach, boarded a tiny row boat to get across the strong river, another 2km down the beach with a crazy local who claimed to be the chief of the town we were heading to, jumped across a downed power line, made our way across a seedy looking swing bridge, got into another rowboat to get around the under repair walkway and finally got to the National Park Entrance where we are told "You can't go to the beach today. Its too rough." What a bummer.

The officer at the Park Desk obviously felt sorry for us so he offered us a deal; instead of paying $2 each to get to the beach, we could pay $5 each, he would give us a guide we could do the Mirador (lookout), the Cave, a few coffee and chocolate farms and then to the beach. Normally costing around $20 each he had a deal.

Hiking up the steep hill to the Mirador was a killer on the original cobblestones the Spanish had laid when first landing in Cuba. With a view worth a million dollars it was well worth it before struggling to stay upright on the way back down and then to the cave for a swim in crystal clear water. When I say crystal clear, I mean that literally. When the guide told us to jump in, we both looked at him like he was crazy because he was shining a torch down the cave to a dry rock bottom, then he threw a stone and we realised it was a small swimming hole so calm and clean we couldn't see it.

Finally making it to the beach, we realised there was a good reason for the officer saying we couldn't swim. With the tide high and the waves crashing so hard we couldn't even see the beach everyone had told us was bonito. Instead of swimming, I read a book while Cat paid $4 for a full body massage by a masseuse who had hit gold with this tourist trap.

Baracoa was by far my favourite place in Cuba, and that was with the bad weather. Friendly locals (sometimes too friendly), rum in our hot chocolate, awesome scenery and the best casa in Cuba, we were definitely glad we had planned to spend so long here. It was sad day when we left but we needed to get back to Havana for our flight back to Mexico.

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Posted by TakeOnTheWorld 12:05 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Santiago de Cuba

sunny

Up next was our 12 hour bus ride to Santiago de Cuba, the second biggest city in Cuba. Buses in Cuba and Central America have this nifty trick of reclining all the way back to the person behinds lap. This is nifty only if you are not the person behind! During this 12 hour bus ride I had the fun of warring with two groups of people in order to keep my minimal leg space all to myself. If you are short, travelling Cuba is easy, if you are tall, be prepared for a lot of bruised knees.
Aside from the battle of the bus seats, Cat read an entire book and I nearly got left behind at a random bus stop on a toilet break.

It was a relief to arrive to our Casa in Santiago and made even better when we find our casa owner is a beautiful Cuban man with a tendency to walk around shirtless.

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Wandering around the pretty streets of Santiago we realise we are definitely back in a major city, the giveaway? The level of harassment by every male we come in the vicinity of. Don't read this as a cocky statement, if you are female with legs and a heart beat, they are all over you like white on rice! We managed to meet a few nice ones who genuinely wanted to chat with a tourist; it is still illegal for Cubans to talk to tourists in public, only now, the police have filled up the prisons, they realise they need to focus on more serious crimes, so Cubans take every chance to chat to you. Sometimes they want to help you out, sometimes they just want to practise their English with you.

While in Santiago we realised it is quite acceptable to take your own beer into a bar, so this we did after having dinner at a mainly locals restaurant (lots of funny looks) and home brew made to look legit.

Our second night in Santiago we explored the town with two locals we had met in the park, these gentlemen gave us the lowdown on the locals, where was good to hang out and one even giving me his bandana to dry my hands on. And who said chivalry is dead?

To be honest, we didn't see a whole lot of Santiago, but it was good to wander the waterfront and have a relatively free day. If I ever get back to Cuba, this is one place I would love to explore some more as it really is a beautiful city that needs a few days to tap into.

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Posted by TakeOnTheWorld 09:43 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Rave in a Cave

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With a minor hangover we managed to make it to this bus on time and spent the next 8 hours heading west to Trinidad. Trinidad was founded in the 16th century in honour of the Holy Trinity and declared a world heritage sight in 1988 , the streets are all original cobble stones (many awkward strolls around town) and the maintenance is obvious with well preserved churches and streets closed to cars. We spent most afternoons at the Casa De La Trova; an open air bar and stage with a rotating roster of local bands and one of the best views in town.

Turns out Trinidad is a city perfect for discovery and discover we did. From stunning views over the city to our new found pals, this city is amongst our favourite in Central America so far. Our first find, a sweet old local man at his hole-in-the-wall bar, I mean literally, he sold Pina Coladas, Mojitos and hamburgers for $10 CUP out of a window in the street. $10CUP is about 50 cents AUD (I'm not even going to attempt to explain this, but Cuba has two currencies. CUC and CUP). Our first night with Pina Colada man we met four Australians and drank the bar out of rum. The second night we lost one Australian and drank the bar out of Pina Colada mixer. Our frequent visits to the Pina Colada man was what led to our next discovery of The Cave.

Tipped off by many locals about "The Cave", the five of us decided to give it a whirl. Making the trek up behind the city we didn't realise just how far we had come, I blame the bar tenders mixing our mojitos for this. We dutifully pay our $5CUC, which is rather pricey for Cuba, and headed on in. Once inside, we grab some nice cold beers and hit the dance floor, it wasn't until I looked up to inspect this 'night club' that I realise where we are. "Hey Cat, 'The Cave' is literally inside of a cave!!!" I yell to her over the pumping techno tunes. No wonder this place is so popular, although blasting house music inside of a mountain is a slight safety concern, who doesn't want to Rave in a Cave! The evening was lost in a blur of salsa, bad and good music, wet hair (thanks to Cat and her ice cold bottle of water) and two days of hearing loss. The hardest part was making it safely back down the mountain and finding our way home. Here is where I did the most embarrassing and backpacker thing I have ever done in my life!

Mum, if you are reading this, please skip over the next paragraph.

Given that our house was a good 20 minute walk from The Cave and we had about 4 bottles of water in the previous hour, at some point I needed the bathroom. With no toilets in sight, it was choice between wet myself or take my chances behind a very nice looking Classic Car. Laundries are hard to come by in Cuba so I chose the latter.
Mid way through Cat runs away,
"Where are you going?!" I yell.
"There is a man in the window behind you. Your on your own!" She yells back as she disappears to hide around the corner.
Upon this revelation I turn around, about 10 metres away a dog starts barking from a window, then out from the shadows emerges a hand to calm the dog down.
I still hope he saw nothing, I also really hope it wasn't his car I was using as a partition.
I'm sorry mum, sometimes you are forced to make choices you are not proud of.

Clearing our foggy heads from the night before we took a tour to a waterfall in the mountains. Riding in a "Russian Limousine" - an old army truck painted fresh camouflage with bench seats installed - we rode high into the cold mountains and walked down a valley to one of the many waterfalls above Trinidad, where a swim in the fresh icy water and hike out put us back on top of the world!

It was definitely sad to leave Trinidad, but we wanted to spend as much time in Baracoa as possible and still had Santiago to explore.


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Posted by TakeOnTheWorld 14:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Vinales - west Cuba.

Our first real adventures in the unforgettable Cuba

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With our money problems sorted out, thank you Cats Mum, the next day we decided to get out of the city and head to the west side of Cuba to a town called Vinales. Unsurprisingly we missed the only bus of the day by ten minutes, but as it turns out, you can get a taxi for almost the same price. We pile into a Classic Dodge that has seen better days with an English couple and make our way through the flat lands around Havana and into the stunning mountains in the west; heart of Cigar country. 

Our first Casa Particular turned out to be on prime real estate. We were at the summit of a rolling hill with a 360 degree view of the entire valley, to top it off this Casa had roof access ideal for Cigar and Rum sunsets. Our casa owner, Maria, organised a private horse back riding tour for us through the valley with the lovely Louisi and his trouble making ponies (he claims they all have 3 or 4 mojitos together a night); a tobacco farm to watch Cigars being made and sample; a coffee farm tour; cave exploring and a swim in a slightly muddy lake, it was a perfect way to settle into Cuba and dust off the camera.

Day two in Vinales was a two hour collectivo ride to the beach in a Bedford van that should have been declared condemned 17 years ago, although it was a new experience getting to see the road pass by underneath due to the rusted out holes in the flooring. The beach was beautiful with white sand, perfect blue water and a few conveniently places bars and restaurants to escape the sun.

With shy sunburn and sore butts from the previous day we headed out to suss out the town once back in Vinales (you will be glad to know the van made it back and the holes had not worsened). Sitting on the large porch of one of the many bars with 60 other tourists, we listened to an absolutely awesome local band, drank too many Cristal beers and a local declared his undying love for me at least 14 times. 
 
Although Vinales is a small town, their one night club or discotheque as the locals call it, is a goer! A bottle of rum for the table at $10CUC (and that’s expensive apparently), some new and old friends (by old I mean the Italian guy we met two nights before in Havana) and some incredibly bad Salsa Dancing on our behalf, made for an excellent night but a shite morning. Cat decided to stay out partying while I went home to catch some sleep before the next day, one problem, Cat has the room key and our Casa owner has no spare. Picture this, me after a few rums, curled up in a ball on the concrete hallway floor using a wet towel as a blanket and even the kitten won’t keep me company. Needless to say, I was not in the mood for chatting when Cat did make it home and it was definitely a quiet first few hours on the bus to Trinidad.

I still haven't come to terms with that morning yet.

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Posted by TakeOnTheWorld 15:29 Archived in Cuba Tagged beaches caves lake cuba swimming vinales coffee hroseriding Comments (0)

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