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Foreword: Cuba was mind blowing to me. The country and its people had an deep impact on me. Unlike most of my trips, I decided to explore Cuba with a very good friend of mine – Severin, whom I know since my early childhood. During the three and a half weeks that we travelled around we mostly stayed with families (casa particulares), which helped a lot to get closer look to the country and its people then on my usual trips, where I normally stay in hostels.
I discoverd a country that was vastly different from all the other places that I have been before – of course some western influences here and there, even Coca Cola from time to time.
Havana, which now ranks as one of my favourit cities, was jaw dropping for me. Where other city centers start looking more and more similar these days, with the same fashion stores and fast food restaurants across town, Havana is a virtual “Global Brand free” Zone.The capital of Cuba is one giant picture opportunity, especially the old part. I walked around and all the buildings, the faces of the people, the cars, everything was eye popping different. I hope you enjoy this little road-report from my time in Cuba – in 2007.
22. April Flight to Havana, Malecon at night
After my arrival in Cuba and unloading my stuff at our first accommodation we strayed around the center of Old Havana and went to “El Capitolio La Habana”, which looks a lot like the United States Capitol. Rumor has it that the guy in charge then wanted to impress his friends in Washington. I wonder why Fidel Castro kept it white after he came to power. I think red would have been a fitting color just as well!
To celebrate the first day in Havana, we walked down the Prado to the Malecon (sea side of Havana) and finally had our first pojo, Mojito and a cigar, three things which would accompany us everywhere in Cuba!
I think I could spend weeks in La Habana Vieja just taking pictures of every single building there. They all sure have a story to tell. Of course there are hot spots and must sees for tourists like the Cathedral de San Cristóbal de La Havana, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza or the Camera Obscura at the corner
of “Plaza Vieja” but it’s the little streets left and right of those landmarks that make Old Havana such a gem. Cuban music everywhere, hundreds of stray cats and dogs, streets filled with cars. It makes you feel like you are in a movie from the 50ties or early 60ties.
The night was reserved for Cubans favorite Sport: Pelota (Baseball). It was the play-off season of 2007 and one of the last games. We arrived at the crowded stadium and tried to buy a ticket, but the vendors kept sending us to different offices until we got to one where we were told that the game was sold out.
A little depressed we decided to hang around at one of the entrances. Out of the sudden we where waved through and where not even charged for the ticket. Unfortunately the security guard confiscated the rum we wanted to take to the game, but he only got it after one final big sip!
The game was amazing and the stadium full with fans of the two competing teams, Havana Industriales and Santiago de Cuba. The game lasted for about 3 hours, in the beginning the Industriales Team from Havana was the leading team, but in the second half the team of Santiago made a turn around and scored big time, taking the victory.
The public bus system in Cuba is very unique . Everyone cues up right before the bus arrives. If the bus is full, you are denied boarding. Then everyone has to remember their position in the cue and all the people walk away only to gather again when the next bus arrives. Our goal was to go to Santa Maria del Mar and stay on the beach for next two days. Our friendly host in Havana had recommended us to an accommodation there and even made a reservation for us. Unfortunately it was an illegal one and only afterwards we found out that it was even more expensive than the official ones. The explanation from the owner was quiet unique but understandable: It’s a great risk to rent illegally so they have to charge more… But nonetheless the old cigarette smoking landlady was very nice and the Caribbean white sand beach in Santa Maria del Mar was worth the 2,5 hours non air-conditioned bus ride.
At night we took a train to Santiago de Cuba. I have to admit, the train ride was one of its kind. The wagons where actually from Eastern-Germany and really old. The same kind used to be in service in Austria on short distances, but we were looking at a 13 hour over-night train ride! Luckily we got a coach but the downside turned out to be the toilet that was next to our coach. Well, actually there was a sign that gave a hint that there once used to be a toilet, but it was not more than just a whole in the floor, missing all the usual equipment such as sink and toilet paper that can be found on even an old train in Europe. The smell was unbearable and it was a real pleasure when someone lit up a cigarette in our cabin. Severin actually smoked a few cigarettes on the train just to get bit of smell-relief. We later found out that there are two kind of trains – the crappy one we got and a “special one”- We even got 20 Cucs back when we arrived in Santiago as we had paid for the special one. I wonder how the “special one” would have looked like…
26th of April 2007, Arriving in Santiago de Cuba
One thing we learned the hard way in Cuba was to always ask for a price before doing business with the locals, such as taxi drivers, landlords etc. . A short distance from the train station to our accommodation turned out to be a pricy one as we were charged 12 Cucs. The bicitaxy driver even asked for more in the beginning but Severin managed to haggle him down. Well, lesson learned!
The center of Santiago is really nice and we enjoyed another Mojito and a cigar at a restaurant right next to the church. A Cuban dressed up like a Super-Pimp and a fancy cane posed for tourists to take pictures.
As Santiago also won the follow up game to the one we saw in Havana there was a big celebration in town. Huge crowds where roaming the streets, lots of grilled pigs where offered on the street and you could buy beer in plastic cups for just a few national pesos. The players were greeted and cheered by the crowd and everybody danced to music. Not bad for a nation considers “Third World”.
April, 27th 2007: Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa by Bus
As we were trying to keep moving we decided to leave Santiago de Cuba after just one night and take a bus to Baracoa, a little town at the very south end of Cuba. Baracoa was the first Spanish settlement and first Capital of Cuba and was not reachable by land until 1960. The road from Santiago to Baracao is magnificent, winding through an amazing mountain range- It took us about 5 hours to get there, with a short stop at the infamous Guantanamo Bay. Luckily, we also got to know Merete, a Norwegian Salsa Teacher whom we would meet up throughout our trip.
After our arrival around lunch time we visited the center of the city, home of the monument of “Hatuey”, Cuba’s First National Hero. This Che Guevara of the 16th century leaded a group of natives in a fight against the invading Spanish conquistadores. As we all know, today Spanish is the first language in Cuba, which means Hatuey was unsuccessful. Actually, he was captured and burned rejecting the offer to go to catholic heaven because there where to many Spaniards up there.
Later during the day we decided to go to Boca de Miel, a little village about 30 minutes from Baracoa and spend some time Playa Blanco. A nice little beach , only about 5 meters broad, surrounded by sharp rocks. On our way back to Baracoa a family in Boca de Miel invited us to dinner the following night (of course to earn a few Peso Convertible). Like for most of the Cubans, it would have been against the law for the family to invite us for dinner to their home, so they where cautions to not be seen talking too much to us.
At night we joined Merete, and Laoise, a girl from Ireland on a night out of dancing and drinking at the local Casa de la Trova and a few beers at a club called “El Rancho” after the group of young men stopped playing at the Casa de la Trova. The club is just a bit outside of Baracoa on top of the hill ”. El Rancho turned out to be “hot spot” for locals and tourists alike, but the Casa de La Trova became one of my favorites locations on the trip.
28th of April: Beach time at Playa Maguan & Boca de Miel
The initial plan was to go to the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, but as it turned out it was quiet expensive to get there and the outlook of hiking for hours in hot and humid weather did not seem like a very good choice. So instead we settled for a day on Playa Maguan, a beautiful beach with white sand. It’s about 30 minutes away from Baracoa by car. We arranged a ride in a dodgy car, driven by two dodgy looking Cubans. On the beach, people and pigs alike roast in the sun and bottles of rum are emptied throughout the day.
At night we went to Boca de Miel again, for a nice meal of fish and rice with the local family. Usually the food is not very good in Cuba, but those locals knew hot to cook. The experience at the Casa de la Trova was a bit different from the day before as the band had changed and old guys where running the show.
April 29th, 2007. Baracoa to Bayamo by bus
On our last day in Baracoa we went to the Casa de la Trova one more time. The band usually starts around 10 or 11 am and performs throughout the day until late night. I also took a closer look to the local church, home to the only remaining cross of the twenty nine that Christopher Columbus brought to the “New World”.
We spent our last hour around the Bus Station to take pictures of an shipwreck just off the coast before boarding the bus that would take us to Bayamo, with a short stop in Santiago de Cuba and Holguin.
Bayamo is a city that most people pass through on their way from Santiago to Santa Clara. Luckily for us, most of the tourists skip that city and it has remained an almost untouched gem. Horse drawn carriages and no beggars and tricksters roaming the streets. We got lost once in the city and asked a guy for directions, he instead offerd us to walk there. He even invited us to have some coffee. The reason to be so kind was not so that we give him some tourist money , but to improve his English and because he was interrested in forreign cultures.
So, if you ever get to the city I strongly recommend it – unfortunately our tight schedule did not permit staying longer in this lovely place and we once again boarded a bus for our next destination, this time in the later afternoon.
Camagüey, the third largest city of Cuba is one giant labyrinth, so it’s best to try and avoid to get lost in the city. We got there on a very important national Holiday. 1st of May is, just like in almost every other country on this planet the International Workers’ Day (Labor day). But in Cuba it’s a little bit bigger than in most of the other nations, one giant celebration for the Cuban revolution, its heroes (Fidel and his entourage) and Socialism. Some might just call it shameless propaganda…
The celebrations took place around the Plaza of the Revolution. Cuban Flags everywhere, people singing “The Internationale”, fiery speeches and – most of the people apathetically marching along to the exclamatory chanting of the presenters on the stage in front of the monument
”Viva Videl” – Viva Raul, Viva la revolution etc. !
After the celebrations where over, all the people disappeared quickly and we were all by ourselves on the giant square . Camagüey also offers a Zoo, but most of its inhabitants (even tigers!) are in a very poor condition paying the entrance fee means you keep those poor animals trapped in their misery.
Santa Clara and the infamous “Mausoleo Che” could be compared to what the St. Peter Basilica in Rome is for the Catholics and Mecca is for Muslims: A sacred place for Socialists. We spent our first day in Santa Clara walking to the mausoleum, about 20 minutes outside town, which is guarded by armed soldiers 24 hours a day. Beside the impressive statue and the remains of Che and his comrades, there is also a very interesting museum with a lot of great pictures (yes, there a lot more than just one!) and items such as his inhalator and weapons. The museum offers a very personal and intimate insight on Che and his time in Cuba. Among my personal favorites was a picture of a very surprised looking Che whith his mouth wide open while eating a sandwich. Another great one of him was taking up in the mountains of Sierra Maestra when one of his comrads was pulling a bad tooth out of Che’s mouth.
May 3, 2007, Santa Clara to Trinidad,
Before we left Santa Clare to go to Trinidad we went to the place where Che and his comrades derailed a train which ultimately led to the victory of the Revolutionaries. Feels great to experience the place first hand where such an important event took place.
Trinidad offers fantastic Spanish colonial architecture and was rightfully declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. The cobblestone streets can be a bit hard to walk on, but we got used to it after some time. As we were exhausted after the past few days of hectic travelling we decided to take it easy, enjoyed a lovely sunset above Trinidad and spent the evening smoking cigars and drinking.