A Travellerspoint blog

Travelling around Cuba

Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, Camaguey, Santa Clara and Trinidad

sunny 28 °C
View Cuban adventures on -inge-'s travel map.

I´ve not written for a while as I´ve spent the last 2 weeks travelling around the country. Its been a wonderful experience and I´ve seen some great places: seriously, anyone who hasn´t been to Cuba yet, I really recommend visitting!
Risking you getting VERY bored now, here´s a little summary of the last 2 weeks.
On Saturday (13.06.09) I got the night bus to Santiago de Cuba (a 15 hours journey!). I got a ´Viazul´ (= tourist) bus there, which stopped every 2-2.5 hours for a little break (in Jaguey Grande, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin and Bayamo for those interested). When entering the bus, we all got a chocolate toffee sweet, which I saw as a sign that this was the right bus to take. Everything would work out well :-)
Though, arriving in Santiago, I wasn´t that sure afterall.
The city is hot... hot, extremely busy and polluted. A woman was waiting for me at the bus terminal (with ´Ingge´ written on a paper)- the casa owner in Havana had organised it so that I´d have a casa sorted in Santiago. We got the taxi from there to her house and sorted out the official papers. I had a shower and decided to check out the city, but was a little disappointed. May be because of the extreme heat or because I hadn´t slept much, Santiago just didn´t impress me. There was more hissing, ´psst´-ing and name-calling there than in Havana (something i didn´t think was even possible) and I found it hard to breathe due to the car fumes in the air. I found one little nice park though (Parque Cespedes) and checked out a few shops, had a Creole lunch (i.e. chicken, rice, beans) on Plaza Dolores and went to the ´Museo del Carnival´- a recommendation in my Rough Guide, which, frankly, I found rubbish (haha... I like to be negative). I then checked my mail and decided to go to bed (at 5pm!) as I was still too tired from the bus trip.
At 8am the next day, I decided that one more day in Santiago would be (more than) enough for me, so I walked to the bus station and got myself a ticket to go to Baracoa the next day. I then decided to be adventurous and take a different route back, managed to get completely lost and in the end, it took me about 2 hours to get back to the road I was originally on... but it was actually quite a nice walk- went to a little market on the way and bought some vegetables and fruit for pesos.
Once back in Santiago centre, I checked out a book store (bought the only English book I could find, which turned out to be a collection of short erotic stories, haha) and then went to the ´Museo Emilio Bacardi Moreau´- probably the only thing I really enjoyed in Santiago. It was originally Bacardi´s own private collection of antiques, art and archeological finds, but he later moved it to a new building to be opened to the public. A huge section of it was guns/weapons/torture instruments used on slaves and there was also a mummy... and upstairs there was a photography exhibition on African body art- really impressive (and I got in for 2 pesos (student discount) so I was happy, hehe).
I spent the evening sitting in Parque Cespedes, drinking shandy and taking photos. Once again, an early night for me (I was in bed by 9pm)... Yes, I´m turning into a granny.
Got up at 5:30 the next day as I had to be at the bus station at 6:45. My bus left at 7:30 and by 1pm I was in Baracoa. The bus trip there was amaaazing- green massive mountains, beautiful lakes and small, windy (dangerous) roads. We stopped at a little farm on the way selling bananas, apples, chocolate and ´cucurucho´ (a paste-like mixture of mashed coconut, sugar, honey, guava and orange- typically Baracoan, served in dried banana leaves and surprisingly tasty).
At the bus terminal in Baracoa, a lady with an ´Inge´ sign was waiting for me once again (this time unplanned... made me feel a little bit stalked) and we got a bikitaxi to her casa...which was, once again, amazing! (I´m not feeling creative with my words today). My room had both a double and single bed, my own bathroom, a porch (with rocking chairs) and my own little private roof terrace (with great view). And the casa owners were both really friendly. It was actually a really nice change to Santiago and Havana- Baracoa is much smaller (the first ever town in Cuba) and amazingly beautiful, surrounded by mountains and the sea, and its generally hassle-free.
But, like Santiago, its VERY hot and i had to spend the afternoon in my room, as it was too hot to go out. At around 4pm, I went exploring- first stop: Casa del Chocolate (obviously). Had some chocolate ice-cream there (as Baracoa is famous for its chocolate) and then checked out some art galleries, shops, the malecon and the plaza de revolution. From there, I got a great view of ´El Yunque´, a famous (literally) rectangular shaped mountain, which was beautiful. I then got myself a pizza and fanta, and sat on the Malecon where I met two German guys who´d also been on my bus. We agreed to meet up the next day on the beach and I went home.
I spent the next morning trying to find the ´Museo Arqueologico´, which took me over an hour as it was hidden away in the mountains and I was directed wrongly (twice!). I got some great views of Baracoa from up there though, but the ´museum´ (in two caves) was a let down.. I was the first customer there, so they let me in for free (as half the route was still shut) but i found it rather fake-looking and saw a scorpion (or something similar) moving around i the distance (ahh!!!) , so I didn´t stay long. I reserved my bus ticket to Camaguey for the next day and then headed to the main square (parque Independencia) where a band was playing outside the Church there. It was really nice- lots of saxophones, trumpets, trombones and bongos... Watched them for ages, as the music was great and it was really nice to see how all the locals responded. Baracoa, as its so small and quite secluded, has much more of a community-feeling than Santiago or any other big cities.
As the day got hotter, I headed home for a little siesta and then went to the beach (Playa Boca de Miel) around 4pm to meet the Germans. The water was nice, though we´d been warned that further out there were biting fish, so I basically didn´t swim further than anywhere I could still stand. We left around 6pm, I had a shower and then went for dinner at ´La Punta´ restaurant on the Malecon. Amazing food- plantains and king prawns in coconut sauce. Yummy! For desert, I bought myself another cucurucho :-)
At 7:30 the next day, I went to Cubatours and bought my bus ticket, checked my mail and walked around a bit. I went back to La Punta for lunch and got on the bus to Camaguey at 2pm, along with the two German guys and half of Holland it seemed. The trip went through Santiago de Cuba, but luckily I only had to stay there for about 20 minutes this time, before getting an on the next bus to Camaguey. The trip (in total) took about 10 hours and I arrived in Camaguey at 2am. When I got off the bus, someone was waiting for me (this time, it just freaked me out a bit as the casa-network seems a little too developed for me- although its really efficient and nice that they sorted it out for me, I felt it was a little too controlled for me as I wasn´t even asked if I needed a casa there!) so we got a taxi to the casa, my room was nice and I got a descent night´s sleep. The casa owner was very friendly, but a little pushy about me having breakfast and dinner there (as I preferred not to eat there so that it would be easier to meet people). It made it a bit awkward for me, so I decided to only stay for one night and to just get the night bus to Santa Clara that evening.
I spent the day exploring Camaguey- a nice little city with colourful colonial buildings and not too much hassle. The only problem was that the map in my Rough Guide was out of date, so i got very lost, but a friendly Cuban showed me the way to the Cubacan office where I wanted to buy my bus ticket. Unfortunately they couldn´t order them for me, but they gave me the bus times (I wanted to get the 3am bus) and told me I´d be fine just showing up there and buying the ticket on the bus. So I walked around a bit, checked out some shops and a ´CrAap´ art gallery (the name amused me)- a nice little gallery displaying art work of students there (very very erotic/suggestive... though may be I´m getting used to this in Cuba now!).
I then went back home to pack and pay for my casa (telling the woman that I didn´t need a place to stay in Santa Clara as she´d already been ringing around to try and organise it for me, once again, without asking me... I had to eventually tell her I´d already sorted something out there as, although it is incredibly friendly and nice of her, I was starting to feel far too looked-after and that I was losing control a bit of what I wanted to do). I left the casa at 5pm, walked around more and bought myself an 8pm ticket to see ´Australia´ in a little cinema there. Around 7pm it started to rain a lot and whilst sheltering a really nice 70-year old Cuban spoke to me (for about an hour) about what its like living in Cuba, how he´d been to Europe when he was young and his life in general. Was nice to be able to follow the conversation in Spanish :-) At 8pm, he walked me to the cinema and when I walked in, they were showing some random Jean-Claude van Damme film... which they stopped half way through to start ´Australia´.
At 22:30, the film ended and I made my way to a hotel, changed into some jeans and some warmer clothes (as Viazul buses like having their airco on high) and walked to the bus station. At 3am the bus came and I fell asleep pretty much straight away.
I got to Santa Clara at 8am and found a casa almost immediately. It was gorgeous- a massive colonial house with high ceilings, my own bathroom, balcony and tv. I had a little nap, bought some breakfast and watched ´When Harry met Sally´. I then went to find the ´Monumento a la toma del tren Blindado´- where Che famously derailed 5 armoured carriages (aimed to go to the Orient) during the battle of Santa Clara (in 1958). It was not that impressive to be honest (it seemed a little too-well restored for me... slightly fake?) but I´m glad I got to see it. I then had some lunch, checked my mail and went to see Casto Solano Maroyo´s statue of Che, not so famous, but I really liked it (have a look for it on google if you can... I still haven´t figured out how to put photos on this yet...). I spent the evening on a bench on Parque Vidal- a beautiful little park in the centre of Santa Clara, very family-friendly, great atmosphere with loud music and watched the sunset.
At 7:30 the next day, I left the house to find the Viazul bus station and to check out Che´s famous memorial statue. The museum there would only open at 9:30, so unfortunately I wasn´t able to go there in case I´d miss my bus (which left Santa Clara for Trinidad at 11:20). Real shame, but its something for me to do next time i come to Cuba :-) The bus journey took about 3 hours and I arrived in Trinidad at 2pm.
Now.... me being a dumbass, thought Haiyon would meet me at the station at 3pm (I´d called her when I was in Camaguey to tell her I´d go there so we arranged to meet up), buuuuuuuuttttt I didn´t realise that she´d actually be coming the NEXT day... so I waited for her for TWO hours before realising it was Sunday, not Monday.... I felt incredibly dumb! So went to find a casa to distract myself and decided to explore Trinidad a bit...which is incredibly beautiful.
Most of the centre is recognised and protected by the UNESCO and it really is a stunning little town. The streets are all cobble stones and its a no-car zone. I found a little Internet cafe and bumped into Sacha there- a Dutch/Russian guy that was also on my Spanish course in Havana, but he was leaving Trinidad the next day (for Santiago!). He gave me some good tips on what to see in Trinidad and i ended up having dinner in an amazing little paladre called ´Sol y Son´, where the food was just delicious! I went to bed feeling completely full and satisfied :-)

After breakfast the next day, I went souvenier shopping (so far, Trinidad´s been the only place tha´t offers nice souveniers I think...) and checked out the ´Iglesia de la Santisima´- a beautiful, simple little church with 8 (!!!) wooden altars. I then made my way to the bus station and picked up Haiyon, changed casa´s (confusing and not a great experience as the casa where I was staying wasn´t happy I was leaving after 1 day) and moved my stuff to the next casa, which was located under a MASSIVE oak tree and which was incredibly cheap- 5 CUC p-p-p-n + 5 CUC for dinner. We then did some sight-seeing and went to ´Casa de la Trova´ to listen to some live music whilst sipping on ´Canchanchara´ cocktails- famously from Trinidad, but basically just a Mojito without the mint.
We then stopped off at a little art gallery, bought 2 paintings and went back to our casa for (a lobster) dinner! The food was amazing and we joined a Canadian woman and her Cuban boyfriend for the meal. We then had a few drinks at ´Casa de Musica´ and got back home at 12:30, both knackered.
The next day we got up at 7am, had breakfast and walked about 30 minutes to find the train stop for a steam train to Valle de los Ingenios. We bought two tickets and and took the ´supposedly 30 minute-lasting trip´ (but actually 1.5 hour trip) to see the famous tower there, which was the tallest tower built in Central America at the time, built to overlook the slaves working on the sugar plantation. I managed to get to the one-but-last level without getting too scared of the height (yay!) but both Haiyon and i felt nauseous from the rocking of the steam train, so we spent most of out time there sitting in the cafe trying to recover... before getting the 1.5 hour journey train back to Trinidad!!!
Once we arrived back, we got a taxi to Playa de Ancon (about 5km from Trinidad) and spent the afternoon sunbathing and drinking beer on a terrace. We met an Australian, Irish and Scottish guy there (who had volunteered in Tanzania!) and we ended up getting the bus back with them, but not before getting covered in mosquito bites. Once back in Trinidad, Haiyon and I were too tired to go ´out-out´, so we had dinner and had a drink at ´Casa de Musica´ (where we randomly bumped into Bo and his new girlfriend!). I arranged to meet them the next evening to check out the nightlife there.
The next day, Haiyon left back to Havana (as she had to attend the Spanish classes the next day to receive her certificate). We did some souvenier shopping beforehand- she bought a beautiful painting from some really friendly artists there (they also explained that the reason why Trinidad generally has more to offer in terms of souveniers, gifts, art etc. is because the rent here is much cheaper than in other cities in Cuba, so many artists hire people in Trinidad to expose their work there). Once Haiyon had left, I checked my mail and started to read a book on Che. I then had dinner (shrimp, yummy!) and met Bo and his girlfriend at 9pm. We sat in ´Casa de Musica´for a while and then followed a random little carnival procession around the town- it was really amazing! Loved it so much- there´s just so much life here- everyone was out on the streets, in pyjamas, hair curlers, dad´s with their children on their backs, whole families... just so nice! And people can dance so incredibly well here... even kids! Its a bit depressing, but amazing to watch. We followed them all to the main square (Parque Cespedes), where afterwards a salsa disco started. A scary-looking little man made me dance with him for a bit, but Bo´s girlfriend saved me (haha, I like being dramatic) and i later danced with a lovely +70 year old man for a bit... I seem to attract the +70 generation here.
The next day, I did some sight-seeing: I went to the ´Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asis´ (its tower being the image associated with Trinidad)- had a great view from there. I then had a look in the museum downstairs (´Museo de la Lucha Contra Banditos´) which was really impressive- lots of photos, speeches and information about student strikes and the fights leading to the revolution. After this, I checked out the ´Museo Romantico´- a furniture museum which I actually really enjoyed (see! I´m becoming a granny!) and did some more souvenier shopping. After deciding to stay one more night, I planned to go horse-riding, but Cubatours told me they only accept groups of at least 5 people. Walking back to my casa, a guy approached me, saying he was actually the guide for the horse-riding trails that Cubatours offers and that he´d take me (on my own) for a 2-hour trip for 15 CUC. I wasn´t too sure about it at first, and if this wasn´t Cuba, I would have never risked it, but I decided to just go for it. I got my camera and met him half an hour later, we walked for about 20 minutes to get to the horses and we set off.
Although it could have turned out really badly, it ended up being one of the best things I´ve done in Cuba! The trip ended up taking 4 hours, but the path was amazingly beautiful, getting great views of Valle de los Ingenios and he took me to the Salto del Caburni waterfall. On the way back, we stopped at a little farm and they made me fresh sugarcane juice and we ate some mangoes (no complaining now AT ALL!). The guide was really nice- we spoke in Spanish (or at least i tried) and he seemed to find it amusing watching me panic when the horse was galloping... I have to say that I was quite happy to get off the horse towards the end, haha. When I got home, I had another amazing meal (shrimps, sweet potato, rice, ocra, greenbeans, fruit... far too much!) so ended up going to bed quite early as I literally couldn´t move.
I got the 7:10 bus the next day, arriving back in Havana at 1pm. I found myself a new casa- with the daughter of the woman I was staying at before (in Nick´s old room). The owner´s really nice and its only about 10 minutes away from the Uni. I met up with Jess in the afternoon (as she was leaving for El Salvador the next day) and we had a drink on the Malecon, watching the sunset.
For the rest, I´ve spent the last few days hanging out with Haiyon, eating lots of ice-cream and on Tuesday we went to Hotel Florida- with a friend of Haiyon´s, Raymon, Sylvia and their (gorgeous) tango-teacher friend Mauel. I also had another salsa lesson with them on Monday and though I seemed to have forgotten most of it at the beginning, its slowly coming back to me. I´m planning to go back to Hotel Florida tonight for some more salsa dancing and of course to Chevre tomorrow (my last evening in Havana). I just can´t believe the time has flown by so quickly these last few weeks...

Two more nights and I´ll be in Panama. Although I´m very excited to see Maudy (btw: Vipasha no longer can join us there) and discover Panama, I think I´ll probably be spending half of my evening tomorrow crying... I just don´t want to leave Cuba yet!
I guess its a good sign though- I´ve loved my time here and I´m sure I´ll be back.

Okay... so that´s the update. Now I´m off to meet Haiyon as we´re going to Plaza de Revolution to check out the view from above the Marti statue.
Hope you all have had a great weekend! The next update will be from Panama! xx

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

Posted by -inge- 17:17 Archived in Cuba Tagged travelling_with_pets Comments (1)

Varadero, Miramar & more salsa

5 weeks in Havana...

sunny 29 °C
View Cuban adventures on -inge-'s travel map.

Hurricane season has now officially started and its not gone unnoticed.
The days are A LOT more humid (as if it wasn´t humid enough to start with!) and it rained almost every day last week... that is rain as in proper torrential crazy rain: after about a minute, you could probably go swimming on the street. I love it! :-)
The only negative side to it (just because I like to complain) is that the streets in Havana are paved with very slippery marble/stone, so when you´re stuck in the rain-storm, you can´t really race out of it (at least not when you´re on flip-flops) so you tend to get quite soaked... saying that, its not really that bad as its not cold at all.
Okay... enough weather-talk (sorry...I just find it facinating).
I´ve had 4 salsa lessons in the past 1.5 weeks. Absolutely LOVE it now. My teacher is just amazing! He´s really calm, great at explaining different steps and is very patient (important when teaching me). I think I´ll actually continue with lessons when I get back, as I´m just really enjoying it. I really didn´t expect to like it this much!
My salsa teachers (Raymon & Sylvia) have also been out with us two nights this week, so I´ve been able to get some practice out of class too. The first time was on Monday, when we went to Hotel Florida (a big group was supposed to meet up there, but a house-party was planned in last-minute, so only 4 of us ended up going to Hotel Florida)- but it was great anyway. Sylvia & Raymon also brought along a friend (a tango-teacher), whose also learning salsa at the moment... he´s gorgeous! so I really didn´t mind, haha...
Last night was the second time they came out with us- at Club Chevre (the club where the dancers are breathtakingly good). Mr. Hottie Tango man was there too, but me being my idiot self ignored him all night and avoided eye contact as he makes me nervous... argh! I frustrate myself sometimes and think I´ve now ruined my chances of coming back home, married & happy with a hot Cuban man. But I did dance with him twice :-)
Along with continuing my salsa lessons, I re-enrolled for another 2 weeks of Spanish this week. I´ve been moved up from the elemental to intermediate group and my new teacher Martha is really lovely. We spend less time on learning verbs and different tenses, and now focus more on talking & listening- which I feel is much more useful as I´d prefer to expand my vocabulary to being able to make proper sentences (that takes more time, which I´ll focus on once I´m back home). Its really nice to have discussions in Spanish- although I probably only understand half of what is being said, I feel its good practice and the topics have been really interesting, ranging from discussions on the socio-political situation in Cuba to the world´s credit crisis, from HIV-AIDS (or ´SIDA´ in Spanish) to suicides in Japan... actually, this all sounds pretty negative...we do also discuss happy things.... like different interpretations of love in Cuba, South America and Europe, different agricultural policies (I´ll classify that under ´happy´ topics), dancing and night-life.... Its just nice to be able to follow it in a different language, even if I only understand parts of it (may be these discussions were actually on something completely different and I´ve just imagined all of this).
I´ve also done a bit more sight-seeing this week. Last Monday I got to check out a bit of Miramar (a richer suburb of Havana as this was the last area to be developed before the revolution)... Its also where most of the embassies are located. 6 of us were going, so we decided to get two taxis there. On the way, the other taxi broke down however, so we didn´t see each other at the meeting point and Jess, Jane and I just ended up walking around a bit, having lunch and leaving (as I had to be back for my salsa class I inthe afternoon). Although I only saw a little part of Miramar, I don´t think its a huge loss- it looked quite boring to be honest!
I also went to Varadero on Saturday (after moving to a new casa (with own bathroom & kitchen, about 1 minute away from Uni) on Friday- which is great,- nice to have some more privacy for a change!). For Varadero, I found a good deal through Havanatours- 16 CUC (about 10 euros) for the 3 hour journey there, lunch and the trip back.. not bad hey! Varadero was nice, but a bit too touristy for me... its known as the Cancun of Cuba. It´s basically a 25km-long peninsula of gorgeous beach and sea (and hotels, hotels, hotels), but I think one day there was more than enough for me. I got a little burnt (again) and spent the day chilling, reading my ´Yes Man´ book.
Oh, and sadly this week, both Nick and Sarah have left. Nick had to unexpected go home on Sunday and Sarah left yesterday. Its such a shame they´re gone- really missing them already. On Tuesday night, we all met up at Coppelia (the amazingly cheap ice-cream space-pod thing) to celebrate Sarah´s last night. Then we went to Hotel Florida for some more salsa dancing and we ended up (appropriately) on the Malecon, with 2 big bottles of rum and lots of singing. I managed to stay out till about 4am, then got a taxi home, unable to stay awake long enough to go for Sarah´s final final club-sandwich breakfast at the Nacional (as we had done the first night we went out here).
Its a shame that people are starting to leave Cuba now... not only because I´ve met some really nice people, but (on a selfish note) also because its a confirmation that all of this fun eventually comes to an end. I still have three weeks here, but I´m sure they´ll just fly by. Not looking forward to that! :-(
Talking about the time I have left: I´m leaving Havana on Saturday!
I haven´t booked it yet, but I´m planning to get the bus to Santiago de Cuba- a 15.5 hour journey! (I was originally going to get the train there with Nick, but apparently its not very reliable and lots of people get mugged in it while they´re sleeping...so, as Nick´s now not able to join me on the journey, getting a bus there is a better option. Its a shame though, as I think it would have been an amazing way to see the country). Santiago is Cuba´s 2nd city and apparently a much older (and poorer) cultural centre. Its also much hotter there (about 30 degrees, but with a humidity level of around 80%) so I might not survive it and just melt...
I want to spend a couple of days there, then go to Baracoa- the first town established in Cuba and apparently one of the most beautiful places to visit in Cuba, located on the southeastern coast and surrounded by mountains. Baracoa has only recently been open to tourism (as its been unaccessible due to no transport links there) but can now be reached by bus via Guantanamo, so it´ll be nice to see the ´real´ Cuba (obviously talking about Baracoa now, not Guantanamo...)
I want to spend a few days in Baracoa, then work my way back to Havana via Santa Clara (to see the Che museum and his famous statue) and Trinidad, a little town near Cienfuegos that EVERYONE seems to love that has been there. I can´t wait!!! :-) My plan is then to be back in Havana around the 29th of June, so that I can have a couple of days here before I leave for Panama on the 2nd (of July).
Oh... and, on a selfish level, GREAT news for me: Vipasha has decided to join me in Panama!!!! I´m sooooo excited and happy! Apparently she´s going to book it this week and arrive on the 2nd of July as well (so Vipasha, if you´re reading this, now I´ve announced it to everyone so you can´t change your mind or people will think I´m a liar...)...
Okay... so, that´s the update this week. 2 more days left in Havana, for now... no plans yet, though I´ve bought tickets to go to the Gran teatro de la Habana with some friends tomorrow night to see Mozart´s ´The Magic Flute´ (opera)... FOR 5 CUBAN PESOS!!! I´ve worked it out and its equivalent to 15 eurocents... 15 eurocents to see Mozart´s ´The Magic Flute´ at a world famous theatre... craziness! I guess there definitely are positive sides to the regime here- cultural facilities/events are highly subsidised. Its great. I can´t wait!
Okidoke... so I´m off to my next (and last) salsa class now...
Que tengas un buen fin de semana!!!
xxx
PS. Has anyone received my postcards yet? I just want to check that the mail system does actually work here...

Posted by -inge- 15:41 Archived in Cuba Tagged travelling_with_pets Comments (0)

Viñales, salsa & rum

Week 4

rain 30 °C
View Cuban adventures on -inge-'s travel map.

Wow, so... lots has happened this week... but right now, I'm really tired from an all-night house-party last night, so this message will probably be a bit scattered.

Let me start with last weekend.
Last Friday, David, Sarah and I took a cab to Catherine´s place after class. Catherine is a Canadian friend of Bo´s, who has been in Cuba for 4 month to try and set up a choreography business here (she´s a dancer). Bo met us there and after about an hour, we set off in the hired car (alas, not a chevy, but some modern car from Cubacars). We drove to Viñales (Western Cuba, in the Pinar del Rio province) via Soroa (about an hour out of Havana) where we stopped for a swim at El Salto, a 20m waterfall. I saw my first snake there! But nothing to be scared of as Cuba has no poisonous snakes.
After El Salto, we drove straight to Viñales (it took us about 3 hours) which was a really nice trip, as the Viñales valley is really beautiful (country-side greenery with its magotes- boulder-like hills). We arrived at about 7pm, had dinner and found 2 casas to stay at for 20 CUC per room per night. The people were really friendly and after we´d unpacked, we checked out the village. It was very small and there wasn´t really much to do, but the houses were really pretty as they all had tarracotta rooves.
The next day, we had breakfast at 8:30 (pinapple, watermelon, mango, bread buns, jam, omlette, coffee) and at 11am, we met up at the other casa to go horse-back riding. The owners there had organised the trip so that we could go horse-riding for 3 hours, including lunch, for 15CUC. I was glad to discover my horse was relatively small and they were all really well trained (may be a little too-well trained, which took some of the excitement out of it). And in the end, we were probably only on the horses for about an hour, as we spent about 1.5 hours on a little farm (in the middle of the valley somewhere) with a farmer showing us how to make cigars, whilst eating pianpple and drinking coffee. He grew pinapples, amongst other fruits, and told Bo I had expensive eyes (as blue eyes are uncommon here). Bo saw it as a business opportunity and tried to sell me to him for TWO PINAPPLES!!! I told him that was far too little, so later they settled on the whole pinapple field. We then smoked the cigars he´d rolled for us and set off back to the village where we were staying for the most amazing lunch (roast chicken & potatoes, rice & beans, tomato & cucumber salad, watermelon/pinapple/mango).
After lunch, we drove (for about an hour) to Cayo Jutías- a gorgeous beach on the Gulf of Mexico. The sea was azul blue and beach had white sand- was really so beautiful! Unfortunately the weather wasn´t great though and about 10 minutes after we´d arrived, it started to rain. We got back to our casas at about 18:30 and had dinner waiting for us (lobster... life is tough!) Although we´d originally planned to drive down to ´Bahia de Corrientes´ to see the sea turtles laying eggs at midnight on Sunday, we decided to go back to Havana that day as we´d all run out of money (dammit!). We set off back to Havana around 12 noon and stopped off at ´Banos de Juan´ at Las Terrazas on the way for a quick swim. I really loved it there as it was full of Cuban families, spending their Sunday afternoon bbq-ing, swimming under the small waterfalls and jumping from the rocks into the water pools. We were back in Havana by 4pm (when the car was due) and Catherine dropped us off at our casas. Later, Sarah and I walked into Habana Central (via Hotel Nacional, conveniently missing the rain) to Catherine´s house to give her a bottle of rum as a thank-you gift for driving and sorting out the car.
So all-in-all, I had a really nice weekend. It was really good to be out of Havana for a bit actually- it gets a bit much here at times and it was a nice change to see some greenery and country-side (and to get away from the constant whistelling and name-calling!).

Other than Viñales, the highlight of this (and last) week has been salsa! I had my first 1.5 hour salsa lesson last Wednesday. Sarah and I had it at the same time with Eduany and his cousin ´Blackma´ (in Blackma´s tiny tiny living room). We kept bumping into each other, but I really really enjoyed it. I don´t think I´m a natural dancer, but the important thing is I had fun, right?). After the lessons, we all decided to meet up in evening to go to ´Cevre´ -at Club Almendares, a salsa club in Vedado. We took a Cuban bus there (completely FULL of people- got to smell lots of armpitts...nice) and had an amazing night! I´ve never seen such good (salsa) dancing in my life...not even in movies. Cubans just KNOW how to move in amazing ways...its incredible. I´ll film it next time i go there, as I just can´t describe it. On the way back, Blackma used the whole (typically Cuban) ´you are so beautiful´chat-up tactic... it didn´t work. Later it also turned out that Eduany had been quite pushy with Sarah (who has a boyfriend in England, but apparently that doesn´t count if he´s not in the country as what he doesn´t know, hasn´t happened)... so we decided to stop our salsa lessons with them, which was a bit of a shame as i really enjoyed dancing with them.

Instead, Sarah, David and I have started taking lessons from 2 professional dancers in Habana Vieja this week. I was supposed to go for my first lesson 3 days ago, but spent the day in bed instead with a stomach bug (all better now though) so I went for my lesson yesterday*** and really loved it. I took it at the same time as Sarah and danced with a woman, originally from Spain, but she's amazingly good and very patient/good at explaining how to dance. At least with her, I know the focus will be on the salsa, and not any possible 'fun' afterwards.

{*** after having been to the ´Jardin Botanico Nacional´(the Nacional Botanical Gardens) with my Spanish class. It was our last lesson (for this month´s group) so we went there as a little excursion. It was pretty big and impressive, but unfortunately all that we were told on the guided tour (by bus) were the different names of the trees, nothing else. But as a bonus, we had an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet lunch in the 'Japanese gardens' afterwards (for 18 CUP!!! -about 20 eurocents!!!)... crazy.}

After the salsa lesson, we went for a meal at an Arabian/Turkish restaurant (El Medina) to celebrate a friends birthday. The food was sooooo good! :-) After the meal (and several daiquiris), we went to Pedro's house party (one of the Cuban guys we met in the first week)- carrying 3 large bottles of 'ron'. The party was so much fun! Spent the whole night dancing on his balcony (at one point, I think there were about 30 people on his little balcony), listening to their live-music and drinking lots of rum... (hence my fragile state right now). I haven't slept yet, as after the party we decided to go to the Nacional to watch the sun come up over the sea on the Malecon. After that, and some breakfast, Sarah and I have just been lazy and spent the day by the pool (just for a change).

I guess the rest of my week has been pretty quiet though. We had Professor Fernando again this week (the dude who just can't teach... or, just refuses to explain any Spanish to us as he just expects us to understand it (and if we don't, it means we're lazy)... so I was a bit naughty and took a day off my course to be lazy by the pool instead and finish my 'Our Man in Havana' book.
I also went out for some rum and music on the Malecon on Tuesday (with Sarah, Pedro, Catherine and a random friend of Pedro's) which turned into a little drama. Pedro's and his friend got ID'd for hanging out with us, and his friend then got taken to the police station (purely for hanging out with tourists!). When he asked them why, they handcuffed him and it all got a bit dramatic... but within half an hour, the same police car came back and dropped him back off as he really wasn't bothering anyone and so they couldn't hold him there. Not a nice experience... but I guess its just the way things go here. Whilst he was being handcuffed, the other Cubans we were with hardly reacted at all- partly because if they did, they'd be arrested too- but also party because its something that happens quite often here I guess...

On a happier note (and highly important to report): I took my first cocotaxi this week!!!! (look them up on google- they're amazing!)- such a fun experience. Wish they had them back home... may be I'll start my own cocotaxi-business when I'm back in Holland and still clueless as to what to do with my life... good business idea? :-)
Going to check out a street party in Vedado tomorrow- apparently its really good & and is the place to buy music in Havana... then Monday, my 'new' course starts for 2 weeks... fingers crossed i won't have Fernando again....

Okidoki guys... that's the update for now. Hope you've all had a good weekend (update me!!!) & hasta lluego xxx

Posted by -inge- 14:22 Archived in Cuba Tagged events Comments (1)

Real-life Habana?

Week 3

sunny 32 °C
View Cuban adventures on -inge-'s travel map.

Wow... I just had an interesting lunch experience. 'Pizza Celina'- a roof-top pizza-place near the University. From the streets, you shout up to the chef what you want (the menu's on his door) and after he's made it (about 5-10 minutes) he lowers down a basket with your pizza in it! You then pay into the basket (pizza's are only about 10 Cuban pesos (i.e. 40 euro cents) and enjoy! :-) Pretty creative way to make money I say!

After my last entry, David, Hayon (the Korean girl whose name I kept forgetting), Sarah and I decided to check out the student night-life in Havana (this was Thursday night). David and Sarah had met a Canadian girl earlier at Hotel Nacional who told them that the Havana University student Union was a good place to go for cheap Mojitos (in Cuban pesos). On our way there, 2 Cuban guys started talking to us- it was all a little strange as i had a weird feeling about them from the start (so did the others i found out later)- they were obviously jinateros (hustlers) and it was obvious that once we got to the student bar, we'd be paying for their drinks. It quite common here, but as we weren't really after their company and didn't really want to be followed by them, it was a bit annoying.
Sure enough, once we got to the student bar, one of the guys went up to the bar-tender and said something (i.e. telling the bartender he had brought us to the bar so that he would get a cut of the profit he would make by charging us in CUCs). Our drinks were served and our bill (including the drinks of the 2 Cubans) came to 28CUC. David got a bit annoyed at them and told them it wasn't right to use us like that and that they should stop pretending to want to get to know us if all they were after was our money... the guy acted all oblivious, saying he had no idea what was going on and that sometimes bar's just don't accept pesos (completely not true)... so we eventually told them we wanted to go home and left them in town.
It really made the evening sour, as up till that point, all the Cuban's we'd met had been really nice/genuine. I completely understand why, when tourists go out drinking with Cubans, that the tourist will pay for the drinks (considering the differences in finances) and generally, considering how expensive drinks are, its really not a problem... but these guys were purely after getting something out of us. They had no interest in actually spending time with us or getting to know us, it was purely about getting as much out of us as possible, so it made us all feel a bit bitter. After a while of being in Havana, you do notice this pattern repeating a lot though- all conversations seem to start off in the same way, and...like this, end up the same way too. I guess the whole situation is just a bit frustrating for tourists, but then again, we have no idea, and probably will never understand, how frustrating the situation is for them too. The longer I'm here, the more obvious the divide between tourist and Cuban seems to become- its all a bit awkward- feels so segregated. I feel guilty for having so much- yet, at the same time, I know its not my fault and that its just the system/situation here... I guess its just weird being in a country where people are not allowed to leave and will never (or at least not at this point in time) see what our lives are really like (other than the wealth and luxury we portray here).
Anyway- the next day (Friday) we all met up in the University square at 10am to get a bus to the rum museum. The University had organised a tour for us there and... (not that) surprisingly, it was all in Spanish. My Spanish really isn't that good yet- especially with reference to any rum-making processes, so I pretty much didn't understand any of it, haha... and in all fairness, the museum was pretty small and the tour wasn't that great, but a bonus was that we got a free shot of rum at the end :-) (though drinking that at 11am was a bit too early for me).
Instead of heading back to Uni in the bus, I decided to stay in town and walk to the 'Fabrica de Tobacos Partagas' (one of the 2 main cigar factory's in Havana Central). I followed the English tour this time (45 minutes, 10CUC!) but it was really worth it! Its really amazing how much time and effort goes into making cigars- i had no idea the selection process was so precise! Apparently it takes about 16 people to make 1 cigar!!!!
Walking through the factory (3 floors), the whole process was shown from start to finish: the selection of the leaves, bundling them, removing the mid-rif (is that what its called?), drying, rolling, casing, glueing, the quality-control checks, sorting them by colour/thickness/strength, labelling, boxing (including the labelling on the boxes)... I was really impressed. The workers are expected to produce between 80 - 250 cigars per day (depending on the size and type of cigar they're making)- but there has been a decrease in demand for cigars (economic crisis/cancer) so workers now leave for home once their quota has been reached (or they produce more to make up for days missed/for the future).
At the time of my tour, I missed the guy that sits and reads to the workers through a microphone (from a newspaper during the morning, and from a book in the afternoons) which was a shame, as that would have been amazing to see. Surprisingly (or not, here in Cuba), people working in the factory earn more than doctors/lecturers/lawyers (!!!)- as their wages are paid out half in Cuban pesos and half in CUCs. Oh, and the factory also has a school for people learning to make cigars :-) -After 9 months, people can graduate from it and join the rest of the workers/be promoted to work on different processes/types of cigar. The tour was really facinating, but unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take photos there- which is a shame as I could have taken some really interesting ones there. Anyway- it was a worthwhile trip & I would recommend it to anyone coming to Havana :-)
That evening, I went out to Hotel Habana Libre- we had lots of stereotypical cocktails (daiquiri's, Mojito's, Cuba Libre's, Pinacoladas) and then went to a 'disco' upstairs. It was actually really fun- danced a lot and we met a Cuban who was showing us his magic tricks- they were amazing! We got home at 5am!
I spent the next day being lazy with Sarah by the pool at Hotel Nacional. That's what Saturday's are for, right? :-)
In the evening, Sarah had planned to go visit 2 friends at Hotel Sevilla (they were staying there) and on the way, someone behind her grabbed her bag and ran off with it!!! Hayon and I were with her when it happened (David has literally left 5 minutes before to go meet up with the guys beforehand) but we couldn't stop him. Sarah did chase him for about 15 minutes though- we lost her, so went to the hotel where the guys were and told them. They eventually found her- she hadn't been able to catch him, as she'd lost him in a crowd. It was really crappy for her though, as she has her phone, keys, camera, visa and wallet in it- luckily she had left her passport at home. Sarah dealt with it all pretty well though- her attitude was that in the end, its only stuff but that she was just gutted that she'd lost the photos she'd taken and her phone numbers.
After getting a taxi to Hotel Sevilla and letting her friends know what happened, she went online to cancel her cards/phone. Once that was all sorted, we went to Cafe Cantante (a club the 'magician' had recommended to us the night before)- a live band was playing there (the singer was apparently quite famous)- but I forgot her name :-( It was alright, but I didn't love the place. We had ordered a bottle of rum and some cans of coke- *bad idea* -its crazy how cheap the rum is here! - and spent the night salsa-ing. Got home late, so I spent the next day feeling really tired & only leaving the house to quickly skype and go for some 'BimBom' ice-cream with David and Sarah.
Yesterday (Monday) classes started up again- the woman teacher is back, so we're all happy as she's so much better than the male teacher. After finding out how little he's taught us, she got very frustrated (I'm guessing this is not the first time this has happened) but I feel that in the last 2 days, I've learnt more from her than the whole week that he taught us. So I'm glad she's back :-)
So, that's the update for now...
Tomorrow, I'll be taking my first salsa class!!! I'll be learning from a teacher recommended by David & I really can't wait :-) Apparently he's a really friendly guy and an amazing dancer. Yay! Also still planning to go on the road-trip this weekend (hopefully it won't rain too much, as there was a massive thunderstorm here last night), so the next update will probably be in about a week. So, till then: have a good weekend! x

Posted by -inge- 15:07 Archived in Cuba Tagged events Comments (0)

Habana fun

Week 2

sunny 32 °C
View Cuban adventures on -inge-'s travel map.

I don't have much to 'report' this week, but I don't think I'll be online again till Sunday/Monday- so thought I'd write a quick update so you all know I'm still alive.

After Saturday's internet session, I went home for a bit, and then to hotel Nacional with Sarah-Jane, David and a Korean girl on Sarah's course (whose name i keep forgetting! :-( -Hotel Nacional is really impressive (super luxurious and expensive!)- its located on a hill next to the Malecon, so in the evenings you get a great view of all the people sitting/dancing/sleeping (and mainly making-out) on it. Its truly the most amazing view. We sat out on the verandah, sipping Mojitos and just people-watched for a bit (yes... typical, but you have no idea how much Havana lives up to its stereotype... all that you imagine of it, is real!!!!). After our cocktails (life is tough...), we walked a bit along the Malecon, but went home quite early as we were all still tired from the night before.
I spent Sunday wondering around Central Habana, walking along the Malecon, sitting on paseo de Marti (reminds me of La Rambla in Barcelona) to read ...no, not Spanish, but Madame Bovary. I then went to check out Havana's version of China town (or, in Spanish: el Barrio Chino)... the entrance looked like a China town (granted)... but walking through it, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're in...Italy? They seemed to just be serving pizzas. Pizzas and beans + rice.

Monday we had classes as normal- my teachers alternate every week, so this week we have a male teacher who generally assumes our Spanish is better than it actually is & so he skips through explanations and laughs at us when we don't know how to answer his questions :-( The worst thing is that he never writes anything on the blackboard, so I spend most of the lesson looking up words (Stef: your dictionary has been SOOOO helpful!!!).. so the lessons aren't really that great, but I guess I can't really complain for 300CUCs per 80 lessons... at least next week we'll have the woman teacher again -she's really good :-) On the way home, Sarah-Jane convinced me to become a member of the swimming pool at Hotel Nacional- 60CUCs for 1 month, including the gym and sauna! So we went there straight away, swam and sunbathed all day... [the idea was to cool down during the hottest part of the day and study together, but it didn't happen then! I'm sure it will in the next few days though *uhum uhum*]

Most of Tuesday was spent trying to sort out my visa... it turns out i can't extend my visa in Cuba unless i sign on for another course (that, or leave the country and come back... the former is the cheaper option)- so I've signed up for another 3 week course at the University. I've sorted out the papers and Carmina (my land-lady who works in the post-graduate department at the University) helped with trying to sort out the rest. Now I just have to wait to hear if they'll accept me to stay on (there's no real reason as to why not...)...so *fingers crossed!* After class, we went to Coppelia- a huge ice-cream parlour in the shape of a space pod. It had 2 queues: a tourist CUC queue (1 CUC for 1 scoop- virtually queue-free) and a Cuban queue, where you could get a bowl with 5 scoops (+ cookies!) for 1 CUP (remember: there are 24 CUPS in 1 CUC!!!)- so we decided to be cheap and join the Cubans. 1.5 hours later, we were enjoying 2 bowls (so 10 scoops) of the most delicious orange, vanilla and short-cake flavoured ice-cream :-) I'm not sure if the ice-cream tasted so good because of how long it took to finally eat it, but either way, it felt like the queuing was worth it :-) I spent the rest of the day swimming, reading and sunbathing with Sarah (but was punished for not working on my Spanish (& being vain for wanting a tan) by getting burnt all over the left-side of my body... -own fault. That evening was spent lying on my bed, under a fan, covered in after-sun. Lesson learnt.

Yesterday I went to the Palacio de Bella Artes after class- a museum with the largest collection of Cuban art in the country. I was really impressed- 3 floors (paintings/sculptures dating from the 18th century till now)- it took me 3 hours in total to see everything! I really enjoyed it though- the only down-side was that none of the information available/titles of work were in English... good for my Spanish, but a bit frustrating too as i had to leave my bag in a locker at the reception (I stupidly forgot my Spanish dictionary in it). I met up with some friends at Capitolio Nacional after that, and we walked to Habana Vieja (old Havana)- loved it! Lots of little music stores, bars, cafes... Nick, one of the guys on Sarah's course, used to live in this part of Havana, so he took us to Plaza Vieja- a part of Habana Vieja that much more European (or Spanish) and we sat on a bar (Taberna de la Muralla) and had a pint of beer that was brewed in the tavern itself (one of the few places in Havana you can get dark beer). The beer is served in hude cyclinders with a tap... good stuff! The Korean girl (aaarghhh... I need to ask her name again!) pretty much downed 2 pints within 20 minutes- was very impressive to see!!! She felt completely fine afterwards... apparently they drink lots of beer in Korea! Then we walked back (the long way!) and got home about an hour later... After dinner, I pretty much fell asleep (it seems I am less African-blooded than I thought i was: my body can't cope in this heat and I'm usually fast asleep by 9pm!)
After class today, I went to change some money (bad day, as the exchange rate was low), went for a beer with Nick and then walked half-an-hour into town to go to the 'Fabrica de Tobacos Partagas' (Cigar factory), only to find that the last tour was at 13:30 (it was 14:30 when I got there)...so then decided to check my mail instead. A (very) helpful Cuban, who initially tried to sell me black-market cigars, helped me find a cheap place to check my mail and gave me some tips on where to go dancing and drinking. Cubans really are extremely friendly people (not just men)- it really surprises me considering their situation & the fact that tourists represent to them all they cannot have... I guess I'm just surprised with how genuine it all is- their friendliness isn't fake at all.

Okay... I have 2 more minutes left, so I have to go. I've tried posting some photos on facebook, but its taking aggggeees, so I guess you'll all just have to wait till I'm in Panama to see them. This weekend, I'm planning to go salsa-dancing (either tonight or tomorrow)- tomorrow we're going to check out the rum museum with my Spanish class and on Saturday I'm going to Veradero with some friends- Cuba's version of 'Costa del Sol'/Cancun... I just want to at least swim in the Carribean sea once while I'm here... ahhh... running out of time... so wishing you all a wonderful weekend!!! xxx

Posted by -inge- 14:43 Archived in Cuba Tagged photography Comments (1)

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