We were not off to a good start when we arrived in Cuba and were immediately singled out from the crowd at customs and interrogated. After getting through customs we were interrogated again by another woman who checked the answers with what we said at the first interrogation. The type of camera we were carrying (semi-professional, apparently) was a question that came up quite a lot for some reason. They were also very interested in our professions. Athena said “community development” as her profession which raised a few eyebrows. Don’t worry Cuba, she didn’t come to force capitalism upon you all.
After we had convinced them that we were not American spies or capitalist freeloaders that didn’t have a return ticket, we were sent through to the airport terminal. A taxi ride later and we were at a random house with no real signage to indicate that it was the place we had booked via email. Luckily, the taxi driver rung all the door bells and yelled up at the windows for us and the door opened. Expecting the worst as we went up the dark soviet style concrete stairs we entered the fourth floor, into the best accommodation we have ever stayed at. Clean, comfortable, working shower, air conditioning, a friendly sausage dog. This place had it all!
When we headed downstairs to explore and get some lunch, we immediately fell in love with Cuba. It was like stepping back in time, pristine old cars, open air bars all with live music, ornate old buildings and hotels. It was noisy, but felt so alive.
After a few days spent in Cuba, however, your patience for getting sold things does run a bit low. There is a chorus of “taxi, señor?”, “horse ride, Miss?”, “restaurante?”, “drinks, señor? Very cheap” following you everywhere you go. One restaurant owner even grabbed us by the wrists to shove the menu in our faces. This was one of the only things that we didn’t like about Cuba, although you learn to live with it. We discovered that avoiding eye contact with anyone quickly approaching you to be a good technique, but not 100% effective.
While walking around we stumbled upon the “Castillo de la Real Fuerza”, a costal fortress used to fight off pirates and store valuable gold, silver and opals among other things. We also learnt about the tipping culture in Cuba. We paid a not-so-insignifigant sum to get in and then were hounded by just about every employee in there for tips. One woman offered to take a photo of us for a tip, which was the only time we gave in. The other employees would follow you around trying to make conversation with you before quickly slipping in as many castle facts as they could in the hope of a tip in return.
The food wasn’t the best we had, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. It was all about the atmosphere and scenery.
Although a lot of the artistic works in Havana were propaganda, statues to the revolution and Ché Guevara quotes, there was a lot of other cool stuff too. We found a statue of a naked woman riding a chicken. It didn’t matter why.
It was a challenge getting you these photos without someone demanding a tip for them. We developed a kind of guerilla photography style, sneaking around and performing photographic ambushes that would have made Ché proud.
Although most of what we ate was mostly rice and beans, we stumbled a very good cheese shop in Havana with a selection of homemade cheeses where they made us a platter for a very reasonable price.
Charming as Havana was, we needed to move on so we caught a taxi to the bus station. The original plan to go to Viñales first was cut short by a less than helpful teller at the bus station. Walking up to the desk, the word Viñales had barely left my lips before she yelled “Cancellation. Sit down!” at me. Doing as she said, I wondered how long I would have to sit and wait to find out about this cancellation. After 20 or so minutes of waiting patiently I got up to enquire again. This time I was abruptly told that the next bus would be in about 6 hours time…by the same woman. I’m not sure what had changed or why I had to sit down before hearing about the timetable (which didn’t seem to be attainable anywhere except verbally) but it was good to finally know.
We decided to change destination at the last minute to catch a sooner bus. Varadero it was. However, the ticket could only be purchased 15 minutes before departure for unknown reasons. Predictably, chaos ensued 15 minutes before the departure time. First we were told to stand in one line, next another, pushing and shoving as everyone raced to get a ticket for the bus. Ticket in hand and only a little roughed up, we boarded the bus to Varadero.
Varadero is quite a touristy town on a long, thin peninsula with white sand beaches stretching its entire length. Perfect for hiring a scooter. We scootled up the coast searching for some less populated beaches but they didn’t seem to exist. Resorts had populated the whole island. We were intrigued by a sign pointing towards the “giant cactus tree” so made a detour. It lived up to its name and was a large, old tree with a cactus wrapped around it. Not sure why it warranted a compulsory guided tour or a $2 entrance fee but it was interesting enough. We felt slightly conned as we rounded the corner to see several more of these “giant cactus trees” lining the beach that were around the same size but without the entry fee or guide.
All this was soon forgotten as we accidentally invited ourselves into a private resort beach. We had some idea that it wasn’t a normal public beach when we found some deck chairs and umbrellas to lounge under but no one was telling us to leave and we didn’t see any signs. Then we caught sight of the beach-bar and decided to go and buy a beer. After ordering, the bartender seemed strangely uninterested in accepting our money that we were waving around.
“You’re guests here aren’t you?”.
After an awkward silence he laughed, winked and said we could go ahead and have anything we liked. If only we hadn’t been driving the scooter. At least we could take advantage of the unlimited slurpies on offer.
Next stop was Trinidad, a small colonial town on the southern coast. It was a lot like a miniature Havana but had a cobble stone town centre that was either off limits to cars or no one risked driving along the lumpy paving for fear of ruining their suspension. There were lots of strange things wedged into the huge gaps in the paving stones. It was a little hard to navigate as all the streets looked the same but we knew were were almost at our homestay when we saw the old abandoned boot in the wedged between the paving.
Trinidad probably had the highest concentration of travelling restaurant bands. At first this was a nice refreshing addition to the ambience but they got old quite quickly. They all played more or less the same few songs and invariably passed around the tip hat every three or four songs. After hearing the same few songs everywhere we went over and over again I think we were starting to lose it…There’s only so much salsa a person can take!
We found an interesting place that called itself a restaurant/museum. The whole building was packed full of English crockery and little ornaments. And, of course, the salsa band.
These little geckos were everywhere and came in all sorts of colours. I think a taxi driver was trying to tell me once that Cuba has a species of lizard that can cure cancer. I hope this was because they have some sort of mystical powers and not anything that requires harming the lizards.
After another gruelling bike ride through the scorching sun, we made it to the beach. This ride was made even more difficult due to the fact that we had been given some of the least sturdy bicycles we had ever had the displeasure to ride. Sean’s chain would slip at the smallest hill while mine had a seat that leaned heavily to one side and a pedal that was hanging on by a thin and quickly deteriorating piece of plastic. This, combined with the fact that the Cuban sun seems to be out with a vengeance to scorch everyone who dares stand under it meant that we were very glad to reach the sea.
The ride was made worth it by the amazing snorkelling trip that we were able to join. We were taken out to a coral reef and snorkelled through schools of brightly coloured fish. We had no idea what any of them were called but they were those bright tropical fish like in Finding Nemo. Another guy on our trip had brought along a banana to feed to the fish. They were going crazy nibbling away in front of us and would sometimes accidentally get your finger.
Dogs seemed to prefer rooftops in Cuba.
We took a taxi up a nearby mountain to a national park which promised to have many swimming opportunities including one underneath a waterfall.
We didn’t get a photo of the waterfall as you had to swim through a cave to get to it. You were able to swim under the waterfall and into a creepy dark cave that had bats flying around it.
Next stop: Cienfuegos and Viñales!