Cuba trip journal

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08/02: Day 9 – Miami > Mexico > Cuba

One could have thought I wouldn’t have much to say about a full travel day, but actually I think a lot of the drama happens during these trips…

First of all, I’ll let you picture where Miami is on the map and now I’ll let you picture where Cuba is… it could have been a quick trip on a coucou plane, but no… it had to be two 4 or 5 hour flights, with a looong 8 hour stop in Mexico City.

However, that wait in Mexico was actually quite fruitful! I made the most of that time to do some research about Cuba, you know just to do a bit of homework to find out at least a couple of things about my destination and what I was going to do, where I was going to go… (yes yes, that was a bit last minute…). Anyhow, I started to read all these things about Cuba:

Reading all of this, I was thinking all of it was internet drama BS and that everything would be absolutely fine when I got there… (what was going to be my surprise).

Anyhow, I remember the excitement when I arrived in La Havana. It was warm, it was new and I was back in a latino country. I finally had that feeling of a lost little girl, in a completely unknown environment, just the feeling and sensation I was looking for! So took out a lot of money, tried to negotiate, pretty unsuccessfully, the taxi ride and on my way I was, in this tiny little really old car, to the place I had booked. Now if you think about it, if they don’t really have internet, how can they possibly get a booking…?

Anyway, before talking about that, I just want to stop on the ride from the airport to the city. Although I don’t think I trusted him much, the driver was actually pretty nice, explaining me some stuff about La Havana. On the way to the center, you have two buildings that carry very famously Chê Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos‘s faces. They light up at night time and I was so impressed and so amazed to see them. I had been watching a couple of movies and series about Cuba, so I knew the importance they had had in the country’s revolution, but I was only starting to understand how much they still influence el Cuba Libre.

When I arrived at my casa particular, which was in a pretty scruffy area, this old lady came down to open the door. It was already pretty late, but she was so welcoming. We sat down in the living room area and before asking me for a reservation or anything else, she asked about me, what I was doing here, what I was going to do, how long I was going to stay, but most importantly, offered me a fresh mixed mango juice… and that was such a good feeling of content and pure happiness.

After an extensive conversation and me getting pretty tired actually, came the booking topic. So I showed her on my phone the booking number, she seemed very interested when she looked at it, but then told me, we don’t have internet, so we don’t really do bookings…. (at that moment a couple of things went through my head: 1- shit the no internet thing is true; 2- what am I going to do…). Luckily she wasn’t very busy and had loads of room to take me in.

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09/02: Day 10 – La Havana 

Spent all day in La Havana. I had such high expectations and that is why I think I was a bit disappointed. Well, I guess it had a lot to do with having two of the worst Mojitos I’ve every tasted… and here « disappointed » is an understatement. But also because I didn’t think I would be taken so much for a walking wallet and that sooo many people would want to scam me. As I was saying, I read during my 8 hours lay over in Mexico about all the scams, that it was very often a big hassle because people come up to you all the time, but I thought it was internet exaggeration and that nothing could be as bad as what was described. Well… in half a day, they tried to scam me 3 times.

The illusion of that precious gem, with people happy and dancing and genuine and a land few(er) people had tread on, was pretty long gone… came in the hard reality of how corrosive a Communist ruled country, who  just wanted to stand up to America and warship Capitalism, can be so damaging to such a beautiful nation. At the end of the day, they are the only one who got punished and poverty, dirtiness and everything falling apart is the reality of la Havana (I may have a bit of a harsh opinion because of all the scams of the day… but let keep that for later). You can really feel how this was a grand city not so so long ago, probably when Cuba was still a Spanish colony and then a (kind of) American colony. However, with the arrival of communism and the fleet of the bourgeoisie, these beautiful architected houses, were just given away to people who could never afford to maintain them…

Anyhow, day started, walked down through Havana centro toward Havana vieja. First scam of the day in front of the Capitol! The Capitol, which by the way, is supposed to be the exact replica of the one in Washington only 5 cm taller (thanks to 7 Dia in la Havana (movie) for teaching me that one) and was, just like in Washington, being renovated.

So first scam of the day: this guy comes along, “where are you from”, blablabla, you should go and check the cooperativa, the cigars, only today and for the next 20 min, are almost half price. I did go but luckily backed out before they would try to sell anything. So continued walking. Stopped at the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas; nothing special, just another ruin that will become in a couple of years a museum. Walked towards the Gran Teatro de la Havana. Beautiful building (30 CUC, or 30$, for a tour… didn’t do it but not sure it’s really worth it). There I started chatting with a taxi driver and was surprised of how much they actually know and to which extent they are quite knowledgeable of their city and it’s history; another surprising fact is that the guy actually studied IT and was a taxi driver… well that’s because 1- there are few jobs and 2- they don’t pay. For example a doctor would be paid 40 CUC (40 $) / month vs they can earn in any touristy related activity, 20 CUC / day… so the great Fidel and the SO famous Chê built a society favoring health and education for… basically nothing, or not much! Anyway, I still have the guy on Facebook and see his beautiful old vintage taxi every now and then, when he has internet.

After an interesting little chat, I walked on to the Bacardi Building, which has now some sort of government activity, since the Bacardi company left Cuba because of the revolution. Then had my second and most elaborate scam. So this guy stops me in the street, asks where I come from, for my name, where I am staying, blablabla and I don’t need a taxi so I move on. A couple of meters further this lady stops me by my name, asking if I recognise her, that she works at my hostel blablabla and tells me I should make the most of the Cooperativa day, so I trust her, although I could not remember her and I follow her. She brings me to this apartment where they have different kinds of cigars and they try to convince me to buy 3 cigars for 25 CUC, assuring me that they are the best and the ones the Che would smoke… but 25$ for three cigars, especially in their home nation, seemed pretty expensive and IT WAS !!!!! I started to put pieces together and… gladly decided to walk away!

I had just started walking in the street and… 3rd scam! This lady comes up to me with the « Milk for the baby » scam, asking me to buy her some milk for her child because she cannot afford and I think they have some sort of coupon system so they can’t have more than a certain amount every day. I had read about that one, so continued on my way to Museo de Bellas artes; didn’t go in but it is supposed to be very nice. Then Museo de la Revolucion, also didn’t do it, but supposed to be very good annnnd 4th scam of they day! This old abuelo wanted to sell me some Chê coins. It is actually very interesting to notice that everything cultural is SO orientated and very much around Fidel, lui, sa vie, son oeuvre and towards his good friend Chê Guevara. In book shops, 90% of the books you will find are the Che’s diaries or Fidel’s last reflexion on society….

Then toward plaza de la Cateral, very nice; The walls are in coral stone. There are around there a few Castillos, but headed to Plaza Vieja, where I met my new Cuban Friend, salsa teacher. By then I was exhausted and pissed, but he took me around and that was nice and relaxing. Went to have a drink at the Ambos Mundos Café/hotel where Hemingway used to hang out and stay. Having a local guide walking me around was nice, although of course, even if he said he didn’t want any money, I was very wary. He probably made his money by asking me too much money for a taxi ride and I paid for 2 mojitos and a diner (4 CUC total), which was fine, but he did buy me lunch and 2 flowers… I think by the time I told him over a mojito in the evening that I “had a boyfriend”, he was disappointed and left, which was perfect for me! Anyway, back at the hotel I luckily met Daniela, who was going to Viñales the next day and there was my new trip buddy.  I have to say I didn’t really want to stay an extra day in la Havana, although there was more to do, but it was so noisy and tiring, I preferred to leave that for later… and also spent like over 100 CUC in one day!

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10/02: Day 11 – Llegada en Viñales

I still haven’t found in Cuba what I was looking for… I left this morning with Daniela for Viñales. It was quite a miracle that I could get in the colectivo (shared taxi) with her, as it was not planed and apparently ce concept of transportation here is quite difficult. She spent 5 days in La Havana before finding a car that would take her. She tried through Viazul, the bus company, but everything was booked at least for the coming few days (apparently first day was closed, second day wasn’t working, third day was complete…). Anyhow, left la Havana at 8 am with   a colectivo which cost us 15 CUC each. Arrived in Viñales and from there starts the “family business”. We arrived at a “casa particular”, 25 CUC per night + 8 CUC for diner + 4 CUC for breakfast… urgh always taking some money out of us… anyway then she proposed us to go for a horse ride with her brother, which was very nice.

We went through the Tobacco field, stopped at a tobacco farm, where I bought good cigars. They are supposed to be the Cuba n°4, the Motecristo, all natural, made by hand, the ones the Chê used to smoke. The fabrication of cigars is actually super interesting. The plants grows up to 1m and it will be used in 5 different parts. The bottom leafs for regular cigarettes (the least good part as it doesn’t receive as much light), the second part… right now I can’t remember, the third part will be used for mixing the good tobacco part (so lets say it’s 60% of the third part and 40% of the fifth), fourth part you use as the “condom”, so the outside part of the cigar and then comes the fifth part, the best part, the one you use for the best quality cigars. So basically, the more you mix 5 and 3, the less good it will taste; and the more 5 you have, the better. It was very interesting and crazy fact, is that it is actually the “spine” of the leaf which contains the nicotine; that skeleton part of the leaf. Potentially, if you don’t mix in that part of the leaf, cigar, unlike cigarette, can be non addictive. They were saying that when they make their own cigars, of course they take it out, but when they send the 90% of their leafs to the state, for them to produce their own cigars, the state factories leave it, for it to keep it’s addictive property. By the way, the “home” recipe to smoke a cigar is to put honey on the end part, where you smoke.

By the way, that visit was just so hilarious. I actually felt like high after smoking a bit of their cigar, they were also proposing organise, home made, Mojito: own mint, own honey, probably own lemons and well the Rum… no need to comment. Anyhow, we started the visit and the explanations just Daniela and I. little by little, more visitors where arriving and none of them spoke Spanish and obviously, the farmer owner didn’t speak anything else… So I started to be his assistant translator, acting as if I knew what I was talking about and he was just saying so much BS, I’m still laughing about the howl situation.

Anyhow, after that, continuing the ride, we went into a cave and then visited a farmer who showed us around different plants. I felt like an extremely stupid city girl, clearly not knowing a single thing about where stuff comes from and how it gets into that little glass container I buy in the supermarket. I learnt that coffee actually grows on trees and not from ground plants as I thought; I learnt that cinnamon comes from the tree bark, that you peel off and let dry in the sun. I mean, does anyone even know that?!

Cristobal, the farmer, was explaining us that his family had a lot of land, but when the new regime came into power, the Comandante Fidel came and split his land in 4, leaving his family with ¼ and giving the rest to 3 other farmers. He said when Capitalism will be back, if it comes back, he would get that land back as he has the property titles.

After that, we got back home and just relaxed. Viñales is small place, 90% for tourists, so it’s mostly restaurants and casas particulares.

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11/02: Day 12 – Viñales

That was a nice day. We took the 5 CUC bus around different sights in Viñales. Stopped at the Cueva del Indio, no interest at all and 5 CUC to get in; then took the bus to the Prehistorical Painting… ha ha ha ha… well known to be the ugliest thing in Cuba! Viñales is supposed to be Fidel’s favourite place and he ordered this painting himself, the colours, the drawings, everything… hideous painting!!

We decided from there to walk back and that was a really nice walk. The sun was finally showing up, the vegetation was beautiful and we stopped at a finca on the way. The farmer first offered us food, which the girls didn’t want… it’s true one should sometimes be a bit careful… you never know what you can get, but then showed us his property and land. It was also beautiful, the view was amazing and he showed us how to gather and dry tobacco leaves and discovered what a papaya tree actually looked like! Walked back to Viñales, had food and then went to admire one of the most gorgeous sunsets I had seen so far, over the Valle from the Hermitas Hotel. Wahou that was incredible, just the view is mind-blowing.

Went back for a rest and then Went out to a bar and found our farmer friend. He asked us if we had ever seen a country as free as Cuba… hum hum… how to say… We bought there a bottle of Rum for 10 CUC and had some salsa lessons. A really fun, local night.

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12/02: Day 13 – Viñales to Trinidad 

Bus goes at 6.45 for 37 CUC.

Arrived there early in the afternoon and looked for a casa. Everything was pretty expensive, so we walked around with our big backpacks for ages it seemed… We stopped at one and this sketchy big mama who was trying to sell us all sorts of things on top of the room, at some point, plunged he hand in her bra, to get out a full pencil case, with pens, scissor and… her phone of course… Daniela and I looked at her with huge eyes, while we were trying not to burst out laughing and run away.

Finally found one a bit out of the way, that wasn’t really cheaper than any other and walked around this UNESCO heritage protected city.

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13/02: Day 14 – Playa Alcon

From Trinidad you can take a bus ride to the Caribbean Sea and go to Playa Alcon… that’s if the bus actually stops… It was pretty funny. We had been waiting for that bus for 20 min maybe and it was so full when it arrived downtown, that the bus just never stopped. And just by magic, 10 voices started shouting “taxi lady, taxi lady!”. I don’t know if the Cuban taxi unions oblige them all to say that all the time, but someone should create a song out of that!

Spent the afternoon there; the beach is really nice, clean and of course the water is sooooo blue and waaaaarm !! It has quite a few little beach bars where you can get cocktails and coconuts.

We came back in this really cool old vintage colectivo. Sharing with us, was this guy who had just started, in January, working on an oil rig in Canada. He would work 1 month and be on holiday 1 month and since he had just started, he didn’t want the company to send him back home to France for the month, but instead asked them to change his tickets for Cuba. So the guy basically had his flight paid for and his full salary to spend the month in Cuba… life is unfair sometimes….

When we got back, we found out about this great restaurant, La Botija, which has very very good and cheap food, but the queue can be veeeeery long… victims of their own success! The place is ornamented with objects that were used on slaves back in the day.

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14/02: Day 15 – Finally found Cuba ! 

Valentine’s day was a very nice chill day. We walked around all the protected area of the old town in the morning, which is absolutely precious. Old style colonial houses, very well preserved, maybe even a little too well, full of colours, in these beautiful paved streets. One can sense how rich and prosperous this city once was, thanks to sugar cane and… humm… slave trade.

Anyway, walking around we found this really sweet tiny restaurant, El Mojito. The food was alright, but it was more the lay out, with walls of vegetation, that made it special.

After which we decided to use the lessons we had learnt from Cuba and get out of the touristy area, to get the real experience. So we went on the heights of Trinidad, where the paved roads stop and found a totally different world. The local world. Small, poor looking, brick and concrete houses, but it had so much more of a warm feeling. The same people were no longer jumping on you to sell something, but were just doing their own thing, living their life. Eventually, we bumped into a guy that had given us a taxi ride and started chatting. We had been intrigued for quite some time by the fact that all houses had the same birds in cages hanging out side, that sing really high all the time, so we dared to ask. He explained us that, some countries do dog fighting, rooster fighting, well Cuba does bird singing battles. So, every owner needs to train their bird to participate in town, province or national competitions and a jury will evaluate of choose which bird sings the best and the highest. Isn’t that just… kiind of cute?

Continuing our expedition and stopped to see a street baseball game, that a couple of kids were playing, with a scruffy ball and a big wooden stick; they were laughing and having so much fun and obviously completely ignoring us, too cool for us. Just on the other side of the street, another bunch of kids, playing some sort of game, mainly girls this time, with one little boy that they were totally bossing around. Do this, do that, do it like that, it was so cute and we clearly understood who led the households in Cuba… and the businesses too actually!

A bit further up we stopped at The Canchanchara; the cutest bar, pretty cheap and good cocktails. It was interesting to chat with the guy that was holding it; he was just saying how much Cuba was in such a terrible situation, that they would never get out of it, that they will forever be poor and have nothing – Pobre hasta siempre! It was kind of sad to hear that from someone who has no access to information other than local newspaper, that will probably never cover the fact that Cuba is changing and how much it is going to grow and evolve in the coming decades.

Before going back for diner at la Botija, we strolled in the streets and the Valentine’s day atmosphere was full of romance, on a background of bachata playing in all the restaurants.

We ended the day, or started the night, with the best time I had in Cuba. In Trinidad, there is a night club called La Cueva, now apparently renamed Disco Alaya, in the heights of the town, so we decided to head there. On the way up, there are a lot of improvised “bars”, which are literally just stands selling cocktails. So we stopped at this, neon lighted, little stand, to have 2CUC strong Mojitos and continued our way up.

Second stop was at this Cuban lady’s house, that we had met earlier in the day. Seeing us, she pulled us in her house and presented us her howl family. It was a tiny place, just enough space for a sofa and a TV in the living room, a kitchen and 2 bed rooms, but it was so nice being invited. All of the family, the wife, the sister, the brother, the grand-farther, her children, were all dancing on the reggeaton that this huge speaker was playing. So we followed along and dance to the music with all of them in the living room. While having so much fun with that family, I see our host coming back from the kitchen, a fork in her hand and shoving food down my friend Daniela’s mouth. Unfortunately, she is vegetarian and of course it was meat… so she tried to draw a polite smile for 2 min, keeping it in her mouth, thinking she would be able to get outside and spit it out… well that didn’t happen… and since she did the same with me, I understood the pain it was to swallow that thing. No idea what it possibly could have been… but it was grows! Stayed there for about 1 hour and when we left, the lady told us to bring her back some beer on the way back… haha.

Finally we arrived where we were supposed to go! But way too early… I should have known that latins don’t start their parties before 1 am. So we waited for about 40 min in the queue for it to open. The wait was TOTALLY worth it. It’s the best club I have ever been too. I would have thought that it used the name La Cueva, but you know, a kind of outdoor cave. Actually, one walks down quite deep before getting into this huge cave, arranged for the purpose. It’s just amazing!!!! The floor was cemented for the dancefloor, but the rest is (more or less) all natural stone. The music is pretty loud, so I was really surprised that everything doesn’t just fall down. That place is really crazy good. A must do, to dance to reggeaton until the end of the night!

On the way back, we stopped by the lady’s house and did leave her a couple of beers.

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15/02: Day 16 – Trinidad to Cienfuegos  

Today was decided that the best word to describe Cuba was “intense”. History, people, music, monuments, first days, life, hassle, noise, dirt, transportation, party, everything I could talk about from my short time in Cuba could be perfectly resumed by that single word. I would also add intense because, one second you can hate Cuba and love it the next.

On the way to Cienfuegos, the ride was quite funny because we started doing my videos for my Cuban advices montage. The driver probably thought we were completely crazy.

Arriving in the city, we first stopped at a casa we had checked online, but didn’t have any space, so the owner sent us to his cousin, or some sort of relative, in the centre of town and for some reason (or was it just the regular price), we had a 50% discount (we didn’t have the money to pay for more anyways). Anyway, as is it often the case in Cuba, when you arrive in people’s casas particulares, they are very welcoming. Our host in Cienfuegos didn’t fail to the custom. However, that was not what stroke us there. When the owner brought us the room, it was this very kitch place, clearly designed for lovers, with everything covered with red satin and heart cushions on the beds.

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16/02: Day 17 – French Cienfuegos  

It’s a shame I can’t recall the name of our casa particular, because it would have been to only one we went to, I would have recommended. The breakfast was delicious and very generous!

Day in Cienfuegos, nothing special… not a city where you want to spend to much time. Took the collectivo back to la Havana for 20 CUC. The route was really pretty, in this nice old car. Splendid. These little route around virgin fields are so beautiful.

I was thinking in the car that Schneider already felt so so far away, because I had already lived to many amazing things!

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17/02: Day 18 – Time to leave Cuba

It’s already time to leave Cuba… definitely not enough time to understand and get to know Cuba. I’ve barely even started to appreciate it. But spending another day in La Havana was great. Totally different experience than the first day… now I know better!! I actually walked around the south part of la Havana, the part south of Carlos III and it was really really pretty. Quite a few more houses are resorted down there. I think it’s good to split your time in la Havana. Maybe planning half on the first days and the other half at the end.

Making the most of my last day, I stopped by the Almacenes San Jose, which is a very nice place, quite touristy, but perfect to buy all your souvenirs! Walking around there, I saw a last Chê painting on a wall in the street. I was remembering that I saw so many of these everywhere and that, unlike the coming decades, probably nothing had really changed much since the 50s. You still have signs of young Fidel with catchy sentences like “Nuestro Deber es Vencer” or figures of the Che absolutely everywhere (walls, cars, buses, etc.)  or “Patria o Muerte”, painted on house doors… It was very interesting to see how the Che was made and still seems hero of the nation (I wasn’t able to figure out if it was just to please tourists or if it was actually still the case).

When I left to take a taxi for the airport, I waited for at least 15 min and started to get kind of concerned about the time… so when an illegal taxi proposed to take me… I said yes! It was quite surprising, but a car stopped just behind him, to tell me that it was an illegal taxi and that I should take it (I think Him and I could have been fined, so he told me, in case police stopped us, that I should say he was my friend). Anyway, I didn’t feel unsafe at all… which is not common with illegal taxis, but I’ve felt pretty safe in Cuba in general, so I really wasn’t worried and he was quite funny. We talked, among other things, about Cubans being good in bed… It was a good last Cuban Experience and I was actually sad to leave Cuba.

Spent the night in Mexico.

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—> Check what’s next: COSTA RICA !

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