Cuba | Backpacking around the World - Part 2

Baracoa, Playa Maguan & Boca de Miel

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.

Santiago de Cuba – Celebration of Baseball Championship

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.

Havana to Santiago de Cuba by train

After our return from Playas del Este we did some more sightseeing in Havana and even managed to get our first pack of cigars at the cigar factory next to the Capitolio.

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…

Havana, Playas del Este, Santa Maria del Mar

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.

La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Baseball Game

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.

Cuba, 2007

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!