So Cuba, what an experience, like no place I have ever been before, it’s been both fascinating and frustrating. I’ve been to other communist countries before, but nothing can really prepare you for Cuba. The fact that this little island has been shut off from the biggest, most influential country in the world for the last 60 years, makes it so unique. The lack of simple everyday goods, the lack of advertising, there are hardly any recognisable brands and hardly any shops. Being in Cuba really brings it home just how much consumerism is such a massive part of our lives. Here it’s not, here the focus is on family and people rather than materialism and money, ultimate socialism.
But, the ideals of communism are hard to maintain,you can see changes, with Castro bringing in new reforms, slowly but noticeably. The younger generation are jumping at the limited leeway on offer, opening up shops, dressing in the lastest fashion, materialism is taking hold and the desire to make money is strong. The country is changing every day, I imagine never to return to Castro’s dream, for better or worse, who’s to say?!
We took a while finding our feet in Cuba and maybe we never did, maybe as an over privileged westerner you never really can! At first we felt rather dazed and confused, then we felt frustrated! Before we could feel mildly comfortable, we had a few obstacles to over come;
How do you live life without the internet?
We had to use pay phones! You may have forgotten what these are! To go online here you have to go to a hotel and pay for a very slow service. Since we were not staying in hotels, this is a bit of a pain. So we have had to travel like in the good old days, solely using the Rough Guide, but the only problem here is that its 50% of the time it’s wrong, Cuba’s changing too fast!
Where do you stay?
With hotels being ridiculously expensive and horrible, we stayed in Casa Particulars. Cubans are now allowed to rent out their spare rooms, they are reasonable, sometimes nice, mainly not, but you can alway find one. So that’s what we did.
Where are all the shops?
So they are there, but just not shops as I know it, and if you do find a shop it has very little in it or just shelves of the same things. We figured out that most of the shops are behind blacked-out windows and you just need to try them all and see what random stuff they are selling. Mainly it is all the same stuff. This one had one had a good supply of oil, unlikely to sell out in the near future! Although the lack of choice does make life easy.
How do you get Taxis?
Every other car is a taxi, but we kept getting ripped off, our mistake was we were trying to get in the new looking state taxis or funny little tourist taxis! What we worked out is the older and crapper looking the car, the cheaper it is, so that’s what we did. They might be too old for seat belts, but when you get to go in cars like this, really who cares about safety!
So once the basics had been worked out, we got stuck into Cuba. Our plan was to spend 4 weeks traveling down to Santiago, in hindsight a small mistake! It doesn’t look too far on the map, but the roads in Cuba roads are terrible. Half way down the country we decided to move our flight to leave a week earlier, I will explain why later.
We stayed in Havana a week, there’s too much to say about this incredible city. I would recommend it to everyone, Cuba as a whole may not be everyones bag, but Havana is a sight to behold.
I wish we had stayed longer. It’s busy, smelly, dirty and falling down, but you can never tire of looking at it. An old treasure you could just stand and stare at for hours. You could walk down the same street a hundred times and alway see something different.
A lot of Havana looks a bit like a war zone, it’s crazy to see people living and working in buildings that look like they may fall down any moment. Then in a perfect contradiction you see magnificently restored buildings, right back to their former colonial glory.
Right next door to grandeur is a dilapidated colonial gem, just about to fall down. You can see remains of beautiful stain glass still in the windows, ornate tiles, exquisite plasterwork crumbling away, peek inside and you may see an old man, a chair and a TV set from the 60s and that’s it, people are living in a derelict mansion, it’s so weird!
It’s sad to see such places falling down and I know people say Cuba’s is being ruined now, but in my eyes I think Havana needs some money, and it’s really nice to see buildings being renovated, so the city can stay standing. But I guess, unfortunately, the money that is coming in is going into the wrong projects. Like luxury shopping centres for the westerner!
In Havana its almost criminal if you don’t get in a fancy American car from the 50s, but they are different from the old battered taxis I talked about earlier. Well maintained and of course a convertible, we rode in this beauty, the roof even still worked 65 years later!
We of course found this out as it started raining really heavily. But as you can’t see anything with the roof up and it’s unbearablely hot, our driver put it back down when the rained slowed and we opted for the air conditioning method.
It kept raining until the roads were like rivers, and we were stuck in central Havana trying to find food in a city that was so flooded you couldn’t even cross the road.
In general, what Cubans do with food is a miracle when you see inside a shop. The best places we’ve found to eat are Paladars, which are essentially people’s homes that they have turned into restaurants. This was a rather fancy one, near our Casa.
They really vary, and in some the food is really good (and of course the rum, especially in Havana). But, like all things in Cuba, everything is much the same, same food, same drinks, same breakfast, everywhere you go it’s all a little like Groundhog Day.
The rest of our time in Havana, we spent our time wandering around,
Freda learnt all about Che Guevara and Fidel, we popped in to museums, drank mojitos and listened to an abundance of great music that was played in almost every bar and restaurant. We even managed a really late night out!
So, while we were enjoying our time in Havana, we were also busy trying to work out where to go next, and how to get there. This is when we came to realise, getting about in Cuba, as independent travelers, with a 4 year old, is a right old pain in the arse. We failed booking a bus, the system was so ridiculous, so we decided to get a private taxi for 4 hours to Vinales. A beautiful part of the country, but far too many tourists……every single house has rooms to rent. After looking around many, we realised that they were all pretty basic and settled for a really shoddy one, but it did have a nice view.
So, in Vinales you have to get on a horse and ride through the valley,
take a look at a tobacco farm (so that they can try sell you some cigars). Then we got to go for a walk into a pitch black cave with a pool at the end, which you can swim in (but as it was pitch black, none of us were tempted)! Somewhere in there, there were very impressive stalagtites and mites….
We had a bit of food, chicken and rice, same same, then back in the saddle. Unfortunately this was shared with Freda, which makes for a very sore bum the next day. As you can see these two had great control over the horse!
Next on the Vinales tourist route is the valley tour, only in a car this time. We scouted around for the best Lada we could find, in Vinales these are much cheaper than the American cars.
On the Lada tour you get to see this fantastic mural commissioned by Castro himself, a man of great taste!
Then more caves, one was particularly impressive, helped by the fact it was lit up this time, so you could see around it. Also we all really enjoyed getting in for free, as the lady at the desk couldn’t be bothered to get off her phone to give us a ticket. Cuban customer service has not been the best, maybe due to the fact that they’re not bothered about making money, so no one gives a shit!
Leaving Vinales this time round we were very proud of ourselves as we managed to book a bus to Cienfuegos, without too much fuss. We celebrated with a tonne of Mojitos and found a nice restaurant with really great live music. It may have only been great due to the amount of rum, but we bought a CD, so will see when we get back.
For me, our late night turned out to be a bad idea, when traveling on the 7 o’clock bus the next day. Cuban buses tend to rock while on the move, due to all the pot holes, it’s like being on a boat. It wasn’t my favourite 7 hours of the trip!
We arrived, at last, in Cienfuegos which is a nice but boring town on the sea. Best bit was some fascinating old buildings, this was the Palacio del Valle
Worst bit was the public swimming pool we took Freda to, although I did get to witness a rather funny but disturbing sight of a group of under 6 years olds twerking and grinding by the side of the pool, like they were in a Rihanna video. Mitch was going to take a picture, which I thought was unwise, so I did it instead, but not really getting close enough.
We moved on to Trinidad, which was a great city and we ended up staying here for quite a while.
One of the reasons was that we wanted to hire a car, as we had planned to spend the following two weeks going up to the Northern beaches and then traveling on to Santiago via the coast. Stupid, naive, unprepared us! There are no cars in Cuba unless you book around two months in advance, even then you’re lucky……so we had to get over it, change our plans, buses for us and that was that! We arrived at our Casa which was like stepping back to the early 1900s, the bed looked like something from a horror film, as did the bathroom. We were going to stay one night and stayed 5, mainly again because we couldn’t find a method to leave. But, we ended up having a really nice time. Trinidad is a very touristy town, but that’s because it’s may be the best preserved colonial town in Cuba.
Lots of music, great buildings and we even had another late night out/in with a lovely couple from the Netherlands. If you’re reading this guys we managed to escape from Cuba, I hope you had a great holiday.
We also spent quite a few of our days at the local beach, Playa Ancon, which was lovely and Freda had a lot of fun.
To top it off, we also had a trip up in to the mountains.
Sadly we left Trinidad, not feeling that there was too much to look forward to in our last week. Cuba and its crazy systems had beaten us. We looked in to booking ourselves in to a hotel by the beach, the problem here being that they are all A/I holes, that’s not my bag. If there’s one thing we’ve seen on this trip, it’s been a nice beach. So we decided to cut our losses and move our flight forward by a week.
There’s one road through the country that the buses go on, so we got moving down it. It’s 12 hours to Santiago from Trinidad so we planned a stop in a little city called Camaguey. It was ok for a couple of days, but not too much to report. We had our pick of a load of rubbish Casas, had the same old breakfast, same dinner, but we did find a playground for Freda, and it’s been a while. It was in the biggest city centre park in the whole of Cuba, which to be honest was pretty small. The playground was a little like a scene from a Armageddon film, the start of Terminator 2 springs to mind…..
..if anyone remembers it! Poor Freda, but she is not very in fussy nowadays.
One other thing of note was the state owned ice cream parlour, Coppelia. A treat for the hard working, underpaid Cubans and Mitch and Freda who had two big bowls of ice cream for just 15p! I had to pass, I’m afraid, all the flies on the massive vats of ice cream were a little off-putting.
But Freda is always happy with ice cream and Mitch loves a bargain, so they had two very happy customers.
Our next bus was at 6 in the morning, it took 7 hours. Mainly because it stopped all of the time and also because it was traveling on country back-roads most of the way. Very nice countryside, though I couldn’t help wishing we had found a car, so that we could have explored more of it. We arrived in Santiago, and Freda endured another traipse round for a half decent bed to crash! Now we don’t even care about the rooms, just as long as we have some outdoor space and don’t have to sit with the family, and their extended family, all the grandparents, and the dogs, and the fish, and the cats……I’m sure you get the picture! Anyway, we finally found one with a nice roof terrace and settled there for our last 3 nights. Same breakfast, and dinner. God this communism lark must get you down after a while!
The town itself is a mixed bag, it’s very full-on with hustlers and is terrible if you are a woman, in fact the worst place I’ve been on our whole trip. I avoided being on my own after I went for a walk on the first day, the amount of attention was really horrible. Apparently Mitch also got just as hassled when on his own, for different reasons, he told me people thought he looked like Che Guevara!
How can I summarise Cuba? What can i say? We’ve loved it and hated it, it makes you think about life, and what we actually need in which to live. I’m going with somewhere in the middle, we have far too much, but the Cubans have far too little. But, the people are very proud and no one goes hungry. Everyone has the right to healthcare, an education, a life without suffering hunger and disease, all the basic needs are meet. Yet I can’t help wondering if there should be more, or if this is enough? The problem is that many people are educated to university level, but no one can get a relevant job. The healthcare is free, but the hospitals have no money! There are beggars but more often people will ask you for pens and clothes, items that they can’t afford and that the state does not supply. Also I can’t feel comfortable in a country where I know the majority of the citizens can’t leave! A society where people can’t speak up about the government, the internet is censored (albeit not very well). I guess like with everywhere there are problems here, but the revolution did happen over 50 years ago, and a lot has changed since! But, how can one family be in power for so long? What’s the difference between this and a dictatorship? I’m not sure, so many questions for which I don’t have the answers. All I know is that Cuba is a country I will never forget! And strangely enough it’s been the place that Freda was the most upset to leave.