I don’t know what I found more surprising: that an eight hour delay didn’t warrant an apology from one single member of the airline, or that nobody seemed to complain. I guess it was a combination of just accepting that life will always be a little shit and being glad that they didn’t have to get the bus or train.
Flying is expensive, (as are most things a tourist might want ..except rum) so most locals either never fly or fly rarely, which is probably why, when we hit sustained and reasonably significant turbulence, there was a fair amount of screaming and just a little crying. I’m not so keen on bumps myself, especially on a small turboprop owned by an airline with a very poor safety record and this background of general despair didn’t help.
We had been Umm-ing and ahh-ing about pulling the pin on our trip to Vinales as the delayed flight meant that we had lost a significant proportion of our time there, but the fact that a taxi driver had been waiting for us for 8 hours and we had an room reserved made us stick to the plan. We were very glad that we did. The town is a very well trodden tourist path set in the hills about 2 hours outside Havana, and after a night in a mosquito infested Casa Peculiar, we met the lovely Miguel and his gorgeous horses and went for a ride in the countryside.
I love a good horse, and mine, Caramello, was pretty much perfect. All I had to do is think trot, canter, stop and he did just that. He made polo ponies look a little sluggish……..and I wanted to take him home.
The first thing my gee-gee did was to encourage me to do something I hadn’t done for 26 years: smoke. We visited a local tobacco farm that was allowed to keep 10% of its product for local sales. Whether true or not, they convinced us that the leaves that made their cigars had the spines removed that contains 80% of the nicotine and as there were no preservation chemicals used, they were pretty much healthy smokes. It won’t become a JFT thing (due to the smell, expense, the need to do it away from most other human beings, the health risk and mostly people smoking fat cigars look like dicks), but I must admit, sitting in the morning sun, puffing on a freshly rolled fat cigar, drinking a very nice honey mojito looking out over the fields was a rather enjoyable experience.
The next thing my naughty horse did was take us to another farm that this time made coffee and rum. As we had done enough coffee in Colombia, we asked that we focus on the rum and in doing so met a lovely local farmer and sampled some lovely local rum with added guavana which gave it a distinctive flavour. We went from the sample to buying a glass (think ¼ pint), then a bottle whilst listening to a very lively trio of musicians playing local music.
It really felt like being in the Latin America that we love. The sun was out, the landscape hilly and beautiful, a group of Puerto Rican’s were dancing and everybody was smiling. If all of Cuba was like this we would be very happy people.
The remainder of the ride took as to a lake (with a bar), through a river, up a hill and through the outskirts of the town. It really was wonderful and Vinales knocked Baracoa off the top place to visit in Cuba podium after just one day at the top.
After the ride, we ate well in the relatively pricy but very good ……. Restaurant before returning to Havana in the same 1952 Chevy that had picked us up the previous day.
Vinales helped us recover some of our joy of travelling and we are very glad we went. Perhaps if we had started here, we may have had a more positive feeling about Cuba from the off. Whether this would have sustained us for the rest of the month is something we won’t know, but if Yu are planning a trip to Cuba, think about starting here.
The best town in Cuba award was held by Bayamo for two long days until it was knocked off the top by Baracoa.
Three days earlier, as we pulled in to town on our Viazul bus having driven through the normal empty scruffy streets past plastic filled beaches, I would have thought this very unlikely.
The town is right at the east end of Cuba and is in a hilly, tropical landscape, dominated by the anvil shaped El Yunque mountain. The town centre is small, but clean, lively and pleasant. There are a few too many touts, who after getting a ‘No gracias’ to their offers of taxis etc, will then start asking for your clothes…..’But I need my shoes to walk home in’. They are very proud of the special coconut milk sauce, unique to the area, and a good size fresh lobster with this sauce will cost about $12.
Locals and tourists alike wander the streets, drink in the square, listen to music and dance on pretty much every day of the week. It felt like a happy town.
We had two excursions to the countryside. The first was to the Yumuri gorge, a site where the indigenous people used to go and commit suicide as a better alternative to being a slave to the Spanish (the name is a bastardisation of the Spanish for ‘I die’) and included a very pleasant visit to a cacao farm to learn how the locals make chocolate, a lunch on a nice beach and a visit to a place called ‘Pretty Lady Mountain’. The latter got its name because a pretty lady once lived at the base of it. I kept an eye out for ‘What a Minger Hill’ and ‘Grumpy Old Cunt Gully’.
This was the first government run tour we went on, and we were not expecting much, but it was a great day. We went on a bus so modern (it had USB power sockets at each seat) we called it the Spaceship …. it really was out of this particular world. We also had a really, really good guide. At $20 for a full day, it was great VFM, which made a refreshing change.
Day Tripping; Yumuri Gorge
The second day trip was was to the Humboldt Reserve, about an hour outside town, where we walked 7km through the jungle, drank coconut juice straight from the coconut, sat by a river having more coconut juice straight from the coconut, but this time with the addition of rum, lime and honey, and swam in a lovely natural pool at the bottom of a waterfall. This was facilitated by the very professional Alber The Hiker (http://alberthehiker.com/en/baracoa-city/) his rather reckless driver in a 1956 Plymouth and made better by the company; two Germans (Henkel and Mariel?) and a Dutch lady (Natasha).
We finished on the beautiful, white sand Maguana Beach where we bathed, drank a little too much beer and mojitos and met two lovely Scottish girls, Angela and Clare. We drove back in high spirits, grateful to arrive safely as the driver had enjoyed a couple of drinks too (when I tipped him as I got out, he ran straight across the road to buy half a bottle of rum and some coke and he cracked the rum straight away).
That evening, we met the gang and the guide at the reasonably good Bon Sabor (‘we have no pork, fish or lamb tonight’) and were served by our guide from day 1, before heading off for a couple at the Casa Trova, where Angela demonstrated some of the best Salsa dancing I have seen by a person not from a Latin American country (she loves dancing, dances with locals but gets proposals of marriage after dance 2 and will find old dancing partners grinding themselves up behind her as she waits at the bar for a drink – ewgh).
Due to a flight at 8.30am next day, we didn’t go mad and were grateful for this when we checked in. Cuban flights are not known to be the best, with a poor safety record and low quality of service bar, but it was the best option (we repeatedly heard that plan ‘A’, a 20 hour train journey was ridiculous due to the huge delays (up to 2 days), broken loos and cockroaches).
There are only 3 or 4 flights a week, so the terminal is small, chaotic and hot. We arrived at 7.15am stood in the first queue to check in our bags, then joined the second to get our hand written boarding passes. At that point, after we had checked in our bags which contained towels and bathing suits, were told that the plane was ‘dead’ and subject to a 6.5 hour delay.
Out and about around Baracoa
We had ‘done’ most of Baracoa by then, so filling 6.5 hours was going to be tough. We started by heading to the town museum that included the storey of Che Guevara and his chocolate factory. There is only one chocolate factory in Cuba and the great Che personally set it up (he may have spent his time better on getting the trains to work). It is currently closed, as its machinery, installed in the late 50’s, had been damaged in the hurricane and Cuba has ‘bought’ new machines from Germany. The factory will reopen July or in 5 years (depend on who tells you .. I’d go 5 years). When we arrived at the museum we were told it was closed. ‘When will it be open?’ ‘May…….. probably).
We then went to the El Castillo Hotel, overlooking the city and the airfield, drank beer and hoped that the plane would be resurrected…..
Back and forth to the airport
We came to Bayamo as we had heard about its huge Saturday night fiesta, unique in Cuba, featuring street bands, street food, organ grinders and streets full of horses. It isn’t quite as advertised; there are no horses or organ grinders, the street food was two stands that sold churros and one that sold popcorn, plus three restaurants with tables in the street, the ‘bands’ were two areas with speakers and lights and the party was a rather subdued affair. J and I tried hard to find the party. The highlight was a goat cart; i.e a cart, pulled by a goat that children could ride on. We went to a lively corner bar that had a faint whiff of sewage about it for a couple of beers, walked up and down the high street trying to find a restaurant that was open, had veggie options and no queue, and, when we failed, hit a soulless hotel bar for a supper of rum and Cornettos, returned to the bar with the faint whiff of sewage, acknowledging it was the place to be, then had one last wander (interestingly, we watched a group of 4 tourists come into the the sniffy bar, sit at the only available table, decide they didn’t like something (the faint whiff of sewage, the indifferent service or the flies on the dirty table) leave, only to return 10 mins later with a look of disappointment, which got deeper when they realised that the only table available was no longer so). Our last foray out to find the party was when it it got better … we found about 30 locals dancing on a street corner near one of the speaker set ups. It really was the first time we had seen such a large collection of locals having fun. When that wound up, we thought we would push our luck and head to the Casa Trova and see if this was also kicking off, and it was. About 100 locals dancing and singing, to reggaeton, disco classics (Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees) and to odd things like the Jungle Book “King of the Swingers”. We fell in with a local family and, after closing time, sat with them in the town square drinking more rum. I think we were the last people ’standing’ as we wandered home at 2.30am, having had a really enjoyable night.
The next day was less enjoyable with J and I wandering around a largely closed, very humid, town with rum flavoured sweat seeping out of us.
Besides the fiesta, there is little to recommend in Bayamo. The Lonely Planet has a number of entries under sights and activities and at first glance it appears interesting, but on closer inspection the sights can be summarised as follows:
• A town square
• A house where someone famous lived until they were 12
• A pedestrianised ‘shopping’ street.
• A small square where Fidel did his last speech before becoming ill.
• A museum with some shells, bones and stones in it.
• 3 churches (closed on Sundays……really)
• A plaque to mark where the national anthem before the current one was first sung
• A house that belonged to a previous president but within which ‘You’ll find little about the famous former occupant”
So we ended up:
• Going to a restaurant that served an omelet so swimming in fat it was inedible
• Having ice cream in a place that ripped us off by saying the prices were in CUC not CUP (so x 24)
• Getting some Wifi cards from a shop assistant that did the whole transaction with using only one word – ‘passport’ – and avoiding eye contact.
• Walking the pedestrianised shopping street, twice
• Visiting some closed churches
• Going into a ‘supermarket’ to marvel at the lack of stuff
• Wishing that our bus was earlier.
And it remains the best town we have been to.
We got to Camaguey in luxury; a reasonable modern Chinese Geely copy of a 1990’s Merc C class, that featured seatbelts, some working electrics, a driver with mirrored aviators and the desire and ability to do 120kph. We felt right posh.
The best bit about going to a new town in Cuba is that we have hope it’s all going to start to get better. On the first evening in Camaguey, as we walked down a lively pedestrianised street, containing shops that seemed to have something other than detergent to sell and a technology park, we thought our hopes had paid off. We also established it was culture week, with ‘lots of events’ taking place. After a quick wander around we stopped off in an eccentrically decorated bar on the edge of a leafy square, drank a few rums and tried to get a feel for the place. We sat at the bar so that the miserable git behind it would find it a challenge to ignore us, but still he gave it his best shot. I think our Spanish was a little off as when we asked for a little ice for our drinks, the look on his face and his general manner suggested that we had accidentally asked to sacrifice his first born. However, to appease us, he slunk off and got us an ice cube each.
Another ‘interesting’ museum
It turns out there was three big ‘events’ as part of culture week. One was getting shitfaced on cheap rum, as demonstrated in the bar and by the people zig-zagging around the streets clutching rum. The second event was to queue to get tickets for up to date films like the original Lethal Weapon or something with Charlie Chaplin in it. The last was to go and see the ‘Big Doll’, a 30ft high rag doll suspended off the side of a building, in a sitting position with its rag legs outstretched. If you went to stare at it in daylight, it had small children playing on the legs. If you stared at it in the evening, it had a couple of ladies who looked down on their luck, sitting on the legs doing their knitting.
Camaguey is Cuba’s third largest city, and like all the cities we have visited, has tremendous potential. It has big, old churches, handsome buildings, large open parks etc. But it is in Cuba, so the potential is far from realised and very soon, after the normal shit service experiences and discovering that the technology park was a place were you could get wifi, our hope left us.
A Shopping Extravaganza
In the three days we were there, we ate once in an up and coming private place called the Melange Grill Bar whose owner was a charming Cuban Canadian who was also trying to open a new bakery in town but was hampered by the lack of flour. We also found the very good Casa Austria, featuring Weiner Scnitzel and Afpel Strudel with ice cream and the Restaurant El Paso on a quiet square with smiling staff and reasonable wine. These places took us a while to find, so supper on a couple of nights was beer and Pringle’s (in normal life, I consider Pringles to be the devils food; here when we see then, we buy at least 4 tubes).
Our highlight was another night of ballet at the Theatro Princiapal. The show was in five parts, each one featuring about 20 minutes of ballet. It was obviously a big deal in the city and people had dressed up for the occasion, even teenagers (who in the west would probably never dream of going to such a thing).
The first performance was the normal 19th Century affair, with tutus and permanent smiles but the second two were more contemporary, flowing and full of emotion, backed by some great music. I really, really loved it, so much so that I kept the program so that when I return to a place that has access to Spotify I can download them. So, some good from Cuba .. I may be a bit of a fan of contemporary ballet.
Out and About
Our daytrip out of Camaguey was a very Cuban experience. We were off to the Hoyo De Bonet, a natural deep depression with a unique biosphere in it. We were picked up by a guide and a taxi, a 1980s Lada that had so much exhaust fumes seeping through the floor that keeping the windows open was a must to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and drove the 45m to the park where we were met by another local guide.
The place was pleasant enough and we walked through deserted woodland, spotting hummingbirds, a snake and big millipedes, visited a cave, walked through a steep sided natural limestone canyon and got to the hole itself. The thing we did know about the hole is that you are not allowed in it as it is a ‘unique biosphere’ that cannot be disturbed. We also didn’t know that the old viewing platform was destroyed by a hurricane a couple of years ago and hadn’t been replaced so you get to stand on a rock near the edge, holding on to a sapling to reduce the risk of death and see pretty much fuck-all whilst the guide assures you that it is really interesting down there. The experience cost of $120….to see fuck all……and get gassed…… Fantastic VFM.
Perhaps the next place will be great……..
Hoyo de Bonet
Cuba is to Canadians what the Costa Del Sol is to Brits. It is where you go to lie on a beach and get a tan. The difference is that there are no parties, no ‘Bar Street’ and ‘Club Street’ and bar crawls that end in either sex or sleeping in a pool of your own vomit, rather each all inclusive hotel has it’s own entertainment program that made us think of Hi-Di-Hi.
The locals call Canadians ‘Pollos’ (Chickens), coz all they do is eat and sleep. About 1.2m come to eat and sleep each year, and I think they like it because their noisy cousins from south of the border can’t get there easily.
An all-inclusive resort isn’t really our thing but we went for two reasons; the Cayos only have all-inclusive resorts as options and secondly, we wanted a bit of a break from Cuba. We pushed the budget a bit and opted to stay at the 5* Melia Cayo Coco. It cost US$220 a night for all food, booze, activities etc and, best of all, was adults only. It was also described as ‘an intimate resort’ as there were ‘only’ 300 rooms!
We arrived, after an easy three hours in our banger, rather early (12pm rather than the check in time of 4pm) but were welcomed and allowed access to everything right from the off. Nobody cried when we got to our room, which was big, airy, slightly dated and had a bath. The hotel was in a lovely location, with a white sand & crystal clear water beach on one side, and a lagoon (also a breeding ground for mosquitoes) on the other. It boasted 4 restaurants; the first was the main buffet restaurant, which we christened ‘The Trough’ and three small ‘a la carte’ places, that you needed to reserve a table in. Interestingly, demand is so high for the non ‘trough’ restaurants that people book via the inter web before they arrive so we had to beg to get a late table on one night in the one place with a vegi option.
It turns out that Canadian ‘Snowbirds’ (people escaping the snow for a bit of sunshine) return year after year and it really was happy families with the staff. The returners also know the tricks of the trade and, rather than being content with the small plastic glasses of beer and cocktails you get to take to the beach, come equipped with their own massive thermal mugs which take about an hour to fill but greatly reduces their need to return to the bar.
I liked being amongst middle to late aged Canadians. They drank but did seem to get drunk, they talked without shouting, they clapped politely at the appalling entertainment, whilst no strangers to the buffet, they weren’t really kicking the arse out of eating (except perhaps the guy who took a whole loaf of bread to accompany his breakfast) and mostly they knew that one wears a top when at the bar. The staff loved them too, because of their almost universal lack of understanding of what Cuba was really like and their North American attitude to tipping. About 50% would tip $1 every time they got an all-inclusive beer (which is about the cost of a beer in a Cuban bar) and I would be surprised if the barman at the beach bar – who rarely bothered to smile or chat – didn’t clear $100 a day in tips, in a country that pays its Doctors $60-$100 per month.
Cayo Coco is also very close to perhaps the worlds most perfect beach under certain criteria – Playa Pilar. It takes about an hour to get there, has no hotels on it, sand like talcum powder and crystal clear water that is shallow enough to wade out waist deep for about 100m. Because you can only get there on one of approx 4 daily buses or in a taxi, it is really quiet, and being Cuba, everything is cheap too. Two sun loungers under a palm roof shade cost $4 for the day and beers were $2. Such a wonderful place in Europe would be packed and charging $60 for a beach chair. If you like lots of bars, music, jet skis etc, this won’t be for you, but as a perfect place to relax, it can’t be beaten.
You get to the beach on an open topped double decker, the hop-on, hop-off type you see in most cities. The difference is, in most cities they rarely go faster than about 50kph. Here they go at 100kph which leads to a bit of an assault on ones senses, rather like being on a motorbike without a crash helmet, and if you keep your mouth open there is a high chance you will drench those behind in streams of dribble.
It was a lovely few days. Some of the staff could have been a lot more friendly, but they were good by Cuban standards, and the scoff lacked a bit of variety, but we ate well, slept well, relaxed on a beautiful beach and felt ready to hit Cuba again by the end of it.
The reason that cars now are not the same as the cars were in 1950, is that the cars in 1950 were shit. It is important to remember this when you get carried away with the romantic idea of Cuban cars and commit to a 2 hour trip in one.
We had ditched our bus in favour of a 1956 Chevy that enabled us to leave Trinidad later and visit an old sugar plantation on the way to the provincial capital of Sancti Spiritus. In Cuba, your view of a good car changes. After 3 weeks here, all we wanted is a trip without a breakdown, a car with seatbelts (very rare), seats that didn’t leave your bum numb after 10 mins, drivers that didn’t bring up phlegm and gob out the window, and a cabin that didn’t have exhaust fumes seeping into it. The bar is low.
The sugar cane place should have been interesting as it had been a large, slave enabled place, that housed about 300 slaves and produced a lot of sugar. We got to learn a bit about the shit life of a slave and would have learnt more if the English speaking guide had not been ‘too busy’ to guide, leaving it to our cab driver and his wife (along for the ride) to show us around. In Spanish.
Sancti Spiritus itself is quite nice. It is clean, it has useable pavements and we found a lovely restaurant overlooking the Yayabo River that served reasonable wine, had blue cheese, an atmosphere and smiling staff. The real shock is that it had all of these, and was a government run place.
It is not a tourist destination so it was good to see ‘The Real Cuba”. It has a pedestrianised shopping street that has some shops that have some stuff in them. Stuff normally comes in the shape of detergent (every shop seems to have loads), rum (it is much, much, much easier to get rum than water), massive, catering size tins of tomato’s or pineapples, rubber gloves and rice cookers. They are so excited about these things, that shop window displays have this stuff in them, and as we approached St Valentines Day, some shops were wrapping detergent and shampoo up as a gift for your significant other. If one shop has x or y in, every shop will have it in, and if you can’t get something in one shop, there is probably little point in looking in similar ones.
Real Cuba seems to lack joy as well. We have visited many poor areas in many different countries in our time and often the thing that goes with such areas is noise; children playing in the streets, scooters buzzing away, music places, people talking on the doorstep, others drinking beer in corner bars etc. Here, there is nothing. A band playing in a street will be watched by people who seem content to stand and stare. Streets are deserted and if you look through peoples doors, a family will be sitting staring at the one channel of the telly, unmoving. Most can’t afford a beer, let alone a scooter. If they do go out, it will be to queue it get into a cheaper government run place where 99% of the staff behave like they really do not want you there (if you got $25 per month, no matter if 1 or 1000s people came in to your restaurant, perhaps we would all behave the same).
Whilst there we went to the Guayabera shirt museum that is located in a lovely old house next to a semi putrid river, and that displays about 30 shirts once worn by famous people. Fascinating. I may open a big pants museum in Bundanoon.
Perhaps slightly more fascinating was the natural history museum, aka the bad taxidermy museum. Our fave exhibit was the up lit stuffed hedgehog. (We got told off by a fellow tourist for having a dim view of the local museums as “it’s amazing what they achieve with very few resources”. I agree with this, but it makes them no less shit as an experience)
The other thing that took up some time was getting the fuck out of there. Our next stop was Cayo Coco in the north and getting there was a challenge, but led to a good Cuban experience. We were trying to get a bus to a town near the Cayo, from where we could get a taxi. Our first trip to the bus station led us to think we should find somewhere in town to get tickets and 30 mins of searching in town indicated that we needed to return to the bus station. We approached a motorbike taxi type thing and asked the driver how much it would cost to go to the bus station, wait for us whilst we got a ticket, then comeback to the square. Not only did he offer a fair price, he came in to the station with us, attempted to help us get a ticket (after 10 mins the solution appeared to be, turn up 30 mins beforehand the following day, wait for the bus to come in and there would ‘probably’ be space for us). The taxi driver suggested that Cuba was crazy, returned us to the square and was both surprised and delighted by the tip we gave him.
We had some interesting dining experiences in town too; a coffee shop that had no milk and an ice cream shop that was eat in only and involved being stared at by the (far too many) staff whilst we ate in a place empty but for us. This place is V odd.
On the day of departure, we duly arrived at the bus station met a nice taxi driver with a reasonable car (a 1980s, Chinese copy of the great Talbot Alpine, that had no seatbelts and no working electrics, but did have comfy seats) and negotiated a reasonable rate to take us to our next stop; an all inclusive package holiday hotel on Cayo Coco.
Since my mother died, I didn’t think I would ever again be led astray by women in their 70s but Trinidad proved me wrong.
Trinidad is one of the key tourist destinations in Cuba. It has handsome buildings, good restaurants and bars and is in reasonably good condition. It comes with a fair amount of touts: Taxi? You want Taxi? Maybe tomorrow? Restaurant? You want restaurant? Etc. Mostly a polite ‘No gracias’ does the trick but once, after repeated hounding J and I found ourselves saying in unison ‘Just fuck-off’ in our mother tongue.
We stayed in Casa Los Mangos, a lovely casa particular run by Fiona, an Aussie who is friends of two of our friends in Bundanoon. Also staying there were the evil Irish sisters, Mary and Clara.
We all got on well so we arranged to meet them, Fiona, and her husband Osniel in a local restaurant for a civilised meal. We achieved that, but then decided to head off to a live music place, Casa Trova, with Mary and Clara. There are Casa Trovas and Casa Musicas in every town, with a mixture of music, many tourists, some locals, cheap booze and some excellent dancers. It is lovely to watch really good dancers, ones that just flow and enjoy it. Others take it very seriously and concentrate very hard, looking slightly like they are keeping a fart in, which can be good to watch too. The only downside is that you can’t really hear yourself think, so after a while, I was thinking about heading home. Clara, however, knew of a place that served great mojitos with high quality rum, so off we went. Whilst it was closed, we found another open air dancing place and stayed there until it closed. Clara then spotted a very small bar with a collection of youths dancing outside, so insisted we had a quick drink there. It was a very basic place; when I asked for the loo, the guy took me outside, around the corner and pointed against a wall and said ‘That’s what we use’. Very sophisticated.
After closing time, we wandered in a very indirect way back to Los Mangos and decided it would be a good idea to polish off M&Cs bottle of rum, whilst we talked politics and general bollocks. And so it was 3am…….
The next morning was a tough one. I felt like I was 70 when we started our three hour horse ride in the baking heat.
J came out of the room at about 9.55. J is not normally a morning person and resents having to be civilised, until she has been up for an hour or so. I am normally a morning person and talk from the moment I get up. J can find this annoying.
On this morning, my hangover state was high, and no talking was a good idea but it became apparent that 6 hours of sleep was not enough to mitigate the effects of 10 hours of drinking and she was full of the joys of spring and incessant chatter. God, it was a tough few hours. Now I know how she feels most mornings.
The ride took us to a sugar cane farm where I got to squeeze the juice out of some sugar cane then drink it, with or without rum. We chose with; it helped me a bit, but did nothing to shut the wife up.
Anyway, the moral of the story is, if two elderly Irish ladies suggest you go for a drink, say yes, have fun, but keep the next day free.
Besides the evil sisters, Trinidad is one of the better places to visit and Los Mangos was an excellent Casa, with great breakfasts and a super friendly host. I recommend visiting both.
Imagine if you had had a great time with your ideal partner, but one day decided it was time to move. No specific reason, just that life is about trying new things. So you move on - go out on a bender and wake up with someone with bad breath and dodgy teeth. All you can do is think about what you have left. The new friend may have a GSOH, like all the things you do and may even be able to suck golf balls through a hose pipe, but you can’t see past the breath and the teeth and all you can think is ‘What the fuck have I done’.
I write this in Havana, in the early days of our Cuban experience, after leaving the wonderful Colombia, and this is how we feel.
Think about Lisbon or Barcelona after Armageddon (or after having been neglected for 60 years). Think about the run-down colonial bits of Mumbai but with fewer people, or a Spanish speaking Yangon and you’ve got Havana. It is fucked. There are many, many, many, many beautiful buildings and a few are in a reasonable condition; some of the rest are literally falling down and the vast majority are in a terrible state of repair. Move one block away from the handful of blocks that make up the reasonably maintained tourist areas and you are in filthy, smelly streets, with stinking rubbish, potholes the size of small caves and bits of dead things (in a few days we have seen 2 dogs legs in the street, which beats my previous exposure by 2). It is a city with enormous potential; it’s next to the sea, has a large harbour and a stock of incredible buildings … it could be one of the finest cities in the world, but it is realising about 1% of that potential.
The well documented shortage of stuff is very much a thing and the need to be comfortable in queues is vital. There are two categories of most things; Government run stuff (the majority) that involves queues, surly staff and very little else. Then there is the ‘up and coming’ private sector, that can involve more stuff, no queues and occasionally charming staff. In Havana we discovered that few foreigners had the patience to go to the former and no local could afford the latter, so it’s very possible to feel like you are in some kind of theme park. For J and I, a big contributor to the joy of travelling is meeting and mixing with different cultures and in Havana we were largely denied the opportunity. The closest we got was a lovely, though a little drunken, couple of hours spent in a very small, very average pizza place that was next door to a very popular pizza place and was perhaps the place people went to when the latter was too busy. We drank beer and chatted to the lovely owner/manager and his dad (in Spanglish) and learned a little bit about local life for local people. The owner was a skilled lab technician in a local hospital, married to another lab technician, but, as they only earned about US$60 a month between them, they needed another source of income.
On our first night in Havana we found what looked like a reasonable restaurant. This turned out to be a truly terrible one that served spaghetti the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the dinner lady at my primary school in 1978 decided to experiment with ‘exotic’ Italian food. We also learned that when you go into a Cuban restaurant, instead of the waiter telling you what the specials are, they tell you what they don’t have. No pork, no shrimps, no corn, no wine, no local beer, only 2 cans of Sol, we haven’t had cheese for 5 days, nothing to provide a hint of flavour etc.
The challenge restaurants have is the lack of stuff in shops. There are no real shops in the way we think of them. In Colombia we complained that we could not get Thai curry paste. In Cuba it is hard to get flour, bread, cooking oil etc. A well stocked shop in the centre of the capital city may have 50 different line items. A normal shop, perhaps 20.
Earlier on our first night, we went to a place near our Casa Peculiar (they are all a bit peculiar) which had been recommended to us for dinner, but we moved on when they told us that there was a 45 minute wait for a table. 2 days later we realised that 45 minutes was entirely reasonable as people are happy to wait for 1-2 hours for exceptionally average food. Part of the problem is that Cuba has two currencies; the CUC and the CUP. Locals not involved in the tourist industry only have access to CUP and foreigners are supposed to do everything in CUC (linked to the US$ 1 – 1). To get CUC, you can go to an ATM in a major city, queue for half an hour or so in a bank or queue for even longer to use the machines in the airport that suck in your pile of Euros or $, counts them, then spits out CUC. (Having a Soviet era machine suck in a significant amount of your available cash is a leap of faith). If you go to government run restaurants that take CUC, they are very cheap by normal standards, hence the queues. I say normal, because whilst you can get more food than you eat for 6CUC in a government place but that is also pretty much a weeks wages if you are a local and rely on a government salary. The ones without the queues only take CUC and therefore are out of reach of most locals..
Eating for J is generally difficult on our trips however Cuba is a real challenge for veggies. J thought that the lack of choice may have been an opportunity to be a little more healthy…….. at least she thought that for a minute or two. “This might be good for me as all they sell are mojitos and I don’t like mojitos. Or I may need to learn to like Mojitos.” J now drinks mojitos.
We stayed in a Casa Particular in Barrio China, which is similar to any other China Town in any other city, but without Chinese people or any good restaurants. Mostly it is crumbling buildings, poorly maintained streets, bad smells and poverty. Our room was in an apartment on the 4th floor of a block of flats run by the very energetic, 4 foot something tall Yani, who rationed bras to afternoon wear only and mostly seemed to wear nighties. She cooked lovely breakfasts, had an immaculate apartment, she was very helpful and our room had hot water and aircon, so that’s all good.
We had booked Yani’s place through the Spanish school we were spending a week at and it was very handy for that at least. Our Spanish had been going down hill a bit in the past few months as we spoke in our comfort zone, and that zone got smaller and smaller, so we needed a top up. I was hoping that everything would come flooding back and we would be pretty much fluent in a week, but instead I remembered how much I didn’t know or had forgotten. I still get confused between the word for horse (caballo) and hair (cabello). I want to ride your hair….. you have something in your horse etc.
When not at school, we explored Havana. On day one we planned to do an old city tour but it was peeing down with rain and cold so postponed it and hit the nearest bar for a coffee. The bar resembled a hostess bar; dark walls, red lights, mirrors and women in tight clothing and served truly terrible coffee, so we hit the beer and the day went down hill from there really.
One of the reasons we ended up in this dodgy bar is that we had no internet, which can only be found in some large hotels and wifi hotspots in public parks. This means that you have to remind yourself of how we did things in the old days. You don’t know what the weather will be like, you don’t know where you live, you don’t know how to get from A-B or how long it takes, you don’t know which bars are good or bad and what the hell do you do if you get split up. So just like in the old days, you get lost, you arrive early or late, you get caught in the rain with no umbrella and you drink bad coffee in hostess bars.
After 24 hours I remembered that I have downloaded maps.me and the Cuba maps so some things became easier.
We also discovered that in the Parque Centro Hotel you could get an hour of internet and a beer, served in a reasonable bar by nice staff, for CUC 4. We were able to do a bit more organising and also utilise the helpful concierge to bag us 2 tickets for Swan Lake in the magnificently restored Theatro Alicia Alonso. That really was a great experience. Really. A great performance in very nice surroundings.
On a ‘Revolution Tour’ we learned nothing about the revolution but lots about what it’s like to live in Cuba and how great Fidel was; we used to have power cuts for 16 hours a day then Fidel had the idea of a distributed power network. Fidel set up shops that have the basics and ration cards to ensure everyone has the basics. It’s not a dictatorship; do you see people getting beaten in the streets? The Guide was in his late 20s and well connected. This meant he went to a good school (we had apples on some days and air-conditioning) but was just a tad brain-washed (though he was a little more open in less crowded areas where he was less likely to be overheard).
Nearly everyone in Cuba works for the government; private business is relatively new. Most hotels, cafes, shops are entirely staffed by miserable people who really do not want to help you. The question you ask will be answered, but no more; ‘Can I have a Cristal beer?’. ‘No, it’s finished’. ‘Do you have other beer?’. ‘Yes’. ‘What kind of beer do you have…..?’ etc.
The government also decides what uniforms people wear, and the Castro’s were/are leg men. In the airport you are met with a flock of young miserable young women wearing skirts that barely hide their pants and 1980’s patterned fishnet tights. We thought we had got mixed up in a surly teenage girls night out.
Our one escape from Havana was a very good massage in the very modern and slick Kempinski hotel in the main square. It was a birthday present to J that was postponed from Bogota and I wish J could have a birthday every day!
We were friggin delighted to leave Havana, half theme park for tourists, half third-world shit hole. I can’t help thinking that unless you have visited every other Latin American country (except perhaps Venezuela) at least twice, why the fuck would you bother with Cuba. I would most certainly try Colombia first.
Next stop: Cienfuegos.
So why start with a summary? Well, for a start, Cuba’s tinternet rules mean that I couldn’t uploads anything whilst there. This means at the end of the trip I have a collection of what on reflection, seem rather negative blogs........coz Cuba is just a bit shit. For some reason it feels easier, and a little more fun to write about shit places, perhaps because I am an English synic at heart, but I thought it sensible to set the scene right at the very beginning.
If I had to use one word to describe Cuba, it would be ‘empty’. Shops empty of stuff, streets empty of shops, restaurants empty of food, countryside empty of life, people empty of joy. On the upside, there are beaches empty of people, sea empty of rubbish and roads empty of traffic.
The FTs don’t need much to keep us happy; some stuff to do, a bit of booze and some nice people experiences. The last are the most important as it is through people that you really get to know a place, and this is were Cuba. I think that the ‘Cuban people are lovely’ thing is a myth. Most people, in most places in the world people are decent, friendly, honest etc, and I am sure that Cubans are no different. The thing is, I can be friendly, and I can also be a grumpy twat. When things are not going right for me, that’s when I am a grumpy twat. If things were not going well for, say, 60 years, I would be a very, very grumpy twat…… and I think this is what has happened to Cuba. So ‘lovely’ deep down or not, mostly they are grumpy.
We have been told by a number of people that this year the shortages are worse than they have been for some time. It’s a combination of President Cunt re-imposing the embargo and that their best economic partners are the car crash that is Venezuela and the now rampantly anti-socialist, fascists in Brazil. They are a robust bunch though and it has been much worse for them. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union they were literally starving. Pets went into the cooking pot along with other wildlife. There is a very cute big mouse thing here called the ……….. For a while it was the go-to snack of choice but it was pretty much scoffed to extinction. It is now protected but still a rare sight.
We have a tremendous sympathy for people having to not only deal with these shortages but also the fact that 95% of jobs are in the government sector and none pay a living wage (a very highly qualified and experienced Dr is unlikely to be paid more than $100 a month, which is why some Drs are doing menial jobs in tourism and no one wants to go to University). Unfortunately, I do not have the ability to be sympathetic all the time and by about midday each day after the fifth encounter with someone in the service industry who really does not want to serve, smile or be courteous, or been in to a café that has no milk, a shop with no water or queued for 30 mins to get a wifi card, I get a little pissed off. The really disappointing bit is that it seems that many in the government service sector seem to delight in being grumpy and difficult. We then hit the rum, that you can buy anywhere and everywhere (in the ‘shop’ of the flamingo lagoon we visited, all you could buy is full bottles of rum). I now have a better understanding of why people on sink estates in big cities resort to booze and drugs to get them through the day.
The eating experience is a great example of how government employees behave. Any reasonable government restaurant has a queue outside or a wait. These restaurants have two ways to make them seem welcoming. The first is to have a miserable person standing at the door, starring at people and informing them of the wait time. The second is to have curtains drawn over all the windows and the doors locked. In this version, one repeatedly knocks until someone reluctantly answers the door, informs you of the wait time then, if you are lucky, points you to seat inside the restaurant to sit and wait at, or just closes the door and locks it behind you so that you wait your turn in the street.
In both versions you are waiting you turn to eat mediocre food in a soulless room that is half empty. That’s right, they are often not full, they just don’t like to be rushed.
So, not all traveling will be fun. Some is just about learning about different cultures and experiencing different ways of living. Some of it is a little bit shit. Cuba isn’t as bad as discovering that a month sharing gaol cell with Mr Big is a way of life you wouldn’t choose, but as a place to discover the joy of Latin America, its pretty low down the list.
Everyone’s a bit different though, so below are some positive and some negative thoughts on Cuba.
8 reasons why Cuba is a great place to visit:
1. It is a unique place and an opportunity to see a very different way of life. This way of life is reasonably quiet, ordered and safe, set a largely sunny and green environment.
2. If you have an eye for a good renovation project, this is paradise and you can spend every day imagining what you can turn beautiful bones into.
3. If you like live music and dancing, there are good opportunities. Most towns have at least one place to go to and talented locals will be your partner to help you improve your style.
4. If you like old American and Russian cars, you will be delighted here. Some are really well preserved and they fit into their environment well.
5. If you like small, interesting places to stay, where you meet and talk to the locals rather than big international hotels, there is so much choice here. The Casa Peculiars are really good VFM and some of the drank old houses they are in are lovely.
6. Some of the beaches are, to my criteria, perfect. White sand, crystal clear water, quiet and with good beer and cocktails.
7. You will meet some lovely people who are well educated, interesting and interested. Almost without exception, the people in the Casa Peculiars were charming and helpful. We had some great guides and interesting taxi drivers. These bits of human interaction are great.
8. Some of the countryside is stunning. Lush jungle, rolling hills, few people, unspoilt little towns.
The other side of the 8 things....
8 things that are not so good.
1. The unique way of life is not through choice, rather a combination of poor government and spiteful sanctions. It involves queues, shortages pay too low to survive off.
2. If you have an eye for a good renovation project, the country may make you feel sad. About 1% of the buildings are living up to their potential, the rest are decaying, crumbling sadness.
3. There are plenty of local men to practice your dancing with but rarely local women. More than 3 dances with a local man can interpreted as a relationship and offers of marriage may follow rapidly. If you are lucky, you may have someone rubbing himself against you as you wait at the bar for a drink.
4. Cars have changed a lot over the years. They have seatbelts, airbags, brakes and do not cough out huge amounts of smog. Cuban roads are pretty empty but very polluted and safety is a 1 – zero equation. You either make it without an accident or you end up in a very bad way, in a hospital with no medicine.
5. I know that they are called Casa Particulars, but most are in someway, peculiar. I long for good sheets, a decent sized bed and pillows with feathers. Often you Casa Peculiar will feature a semi naked man (shirts are not an essential item in Cuba) and a very, very, very elderly relative, propped up somewhere.
6. If you want beaches with parties, great restaurants and lots of activities, this is probably not the place for you.
7. You will met a lot of grumpy people here and every time you interact with a surely, disinterested, bordering on rude government employee, your happiness levels may take a hit. It’s not their fault; They don’t get paid enough to live on and need to queue for too much of their lives. I would be grumpy too. This is why Drs, architects, professors and accountants are running Casa Peculiars, driving taxis and working as guides. They get in a day what they would get in a month if they did their proper jobs.
8. The emptiness of the countryside is rather sad. It is hugely under developed and under utilised. Most people rely on horse drawn taxis, scooters and bikes to get around. It is a bit like a Handmaiden’s Tale, and that no fun for anyone. A website for Bayamo says that the town should make more of its Eco credentials as a UN report showed that only 15% of people use a car as transport and 39% use horse drawn taxi/bus things. This is a little like suggesting that a war-torn, drought stricken African country should make more of its healthy living credentials coz no-one is fat….. It really isn’t a choice thing and going to work each day, sitting on an uncomfortable wooden bench behind a slow moving farting horse would lose its novelty value reasonably rapidly. I think the proportions would be similar in most Cuban towns as motorised transport really is a very rare luxury.
Cuba Top Tips
1. If you haven’t been to Colombia, Mexico or Argentina yet, go there first. You get all the great bits of Latin America with a little more joy.
2. If you stay Havana, stay in Vedado; it’s clean, safe and has places to eat and drink. Old Havana and in particular, Barrio Chino is a dirty shithole.
3. Don’t stay long in Havana. Head to Vinales and take a horse ride. You will see Cuba at it’s best and start with a positive frame of mind.
4. When visiting towns, spend about a day in the town and then explore. Most towns are reasonably similar and will get dull soon. Some of our best days have been spent exploring the countryside.
5. Our exposure to the government tours was good. Great guide, good bus and VFM.
6. Hit the beaches in the Cayos, even if that means enduring a few nights in an all-inclusive hotel. They are special.
7. Learn a bit of Spanish. The more you learn the, the better the experience. If you can’t be arsed to learn please, thank you, hello, goodbye and can I have a beer please, you probably need to have a word with yourself.
8. Take stuff to give people; makeup, pens, pencils, etc. Life really is very, very tough her, and it will be appreciated. If when you leave you think that any of your cloths only have a few months in them, leave them behind. Someone will get more life out of them than you think possible.
9. Expect people in hotels, restaurants and shops to be rude and unhelpful. If that is your default setting, you will be delighted when they are charming and helpful.
10. Take treats for yourself; chocolate, marmite etc. There really is fuck all here. We started to think Pringle crisps were a treat.