We got the bus from Havana to Cienfuegos, about 5 hours away. Tourists have to use the reasonably comfortable Viazul buses, the ones that killed a few tourists in an RTA last month. It is government run, so the bus station is a study in inefficiency. Staff sit doing nothing until a designated time to do something, queues form as they do that thing slowly, then they do nothing again, other than tell people they can’t check-in, buy a ticket etc until ‘x’ time.
How they managed to have an accident is beyond me as the level of traffic on the road is spookily light. People just don’t have cars here. In the countryside they have bicycles, small motorbikes, electric bikes or horses. Buses and taxis can be all the above, pretty much, plus old trucks with plastic seats attached to the floor or a bit of an old coach attached to a truck. Our bus really was the cream of the crop.
Cienfuegos tried to ensure our spirits didn’t lift when we arrived; hassled by taxi drivers, charged a ridiculous amount for our short trip, no answer for ages at our Casa/hostel and the advertised Wifi was broken.
This last bit was rather important as we had a problem we needed to fix; our only bank card that worked in Cuban ATMs (Westpac doesn’t work in Cuba) had stopped working. In a normal country, this would involve a call to the bank, a few questions, then we could crack on. It’s different in Cuba. Our mobiles won’t work here. You can use pay phones for international calls but the phone cards that you need to do this are very, very rare. So we needed the internet to use skype. To do this we needed to buy a wifi card…….. which had sold out….so the next day we queued for 20m to get some, then hunted for a stable hotspot to make the call……… and the bank put us on hold for 20m………. so our skype credit ran out……and the App Store doesn’t work in Cuba, so we couldn’t recharge our skype credit…….so we found a desktop computer (remember Internet cafés?) and logged on………….from a new device so Skype sent a code to the linked hotmail account which we then tried to log in to……..from a new device…..so Microsoft sent a code to our alternative address………so one of us had to return to a hotspot to log on to that account from our old device to get the friggen code……then back to the Internet café, get on to skype, recharge your account, but then can’t use the computer to use skype so then return to the hotspot to be put on hold for 20m. ARRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH. It only took us about 3 hours to sort, so we went to the pub.
On the upside, on night one we walked past a cultural centre, heard music and met the charming Carlos, an ex Cuban Olympic fencer (3 olympics and bronze at Sydney in 2000). He told us that there was live music for the next couple of hours featuring music from the countryside. We thought we would be walking into tourist hell but ended up in a very local event with people sitting around drinking rum and listening to people having improvised singing battles. We didn’t understand much, but it was clear they were trying to win arguments, score points off each other. They couldn’t sing for shit but it was very entertaining and we enjoyed our first Cuban experience.
Cienfuegos is a reasonably nice town. It again has lovely buildings is on a huge natural harbour, has reasonable food and much more of a local feel to it. It’s not exciting; the sites that the Lonely Plant recommend we visit consist of 2 cemetery’s, one reached via a hot road through a slum, a building closed to the public with a nice staircase, a building that is open to the public which has a nice staircase that is closed, a church and a building with gloomy paintings (these are the descriptions in the book pretty much). We saw the stairs, the gloomy paintings and the church but, other than a chance drive past of one, gave the cemetery’s a miss.
Outside of town there is Cubas oldest Botanical Garden, which is more of a big field with some trees. You may argue that this is exactly what such a place ought to be, but in my experience there is normally at least a sign with the name of the tree somewhere. To add to the excitement of this adventure, the ancient Lada that was our taxi had a puncture on the way there, but this was fixed with the swiftness of a F1 Team.
A Trip to the Gardens
There is also a Flamingo Lagoon but unless you have a flamingo fetish, rather than only merely like them, I would give this extremely badly organised, government run fiasco a miss. The 20 minute experience takes about 2 hours and involves waiting for the ticket people to turn up, buying a ticket (passport required), waiting for the guide to turn up (45mins..... ‘he has no transport’...) a 200m walk to the lagoon along a well marked path which really didn’t warrant a guide, then 20 mins in a small plastic rowing boat (made for 1 staff member and three passengers so as most people come in couples, 50% were split up) to get within a couple of hundred meters the birds. It is peaceful, birds are nice, the lagoon is pretty, but FFS, why is it all so fucking hard.
The Flamingo Lagoon
On the other hand, the El Nicho park, with its lovely pools and waterfalls is a delight. We went on a quiet day and enjoyed the short walk to the action and a swim in the ultra clear and refreshing pools (almost too clear to pee in and get away with it). It really is beautiful and very much worth the visit.
Cienfuegos went someway to improving our outlook about Cuba. It is reasonably relaxed, reasonably clean, we met some lovely locals (got hassled a bit too, but not too much), found some good spots to relax overlooking the water and ate reasonably well. Worth a day or two if you are in Cuba.