Day 1: to Havana
A panic descends as we try to organise transport to the airport. The wonderful Ann Brennan has a bug and can’t provide us with a lift. MyTaxi tells me everything is booked up. Images of us pretending to have been in Cuba flash through our minds but in the end we snag a ride and make it in pretty good time with the border checks and controls going rather swimmingly.
I’ve been a wee bit ill for the last few days, so it has not been a great lead in to our adventure. Though being treated to a stomper of a gig by The Killers the night before we fly was a bit of a much needed pick me up. We’ve done our homework for Cuba, having watched ‘The Cuba Libre Story’ from start to finish. A brief history of an island at the centre of so much, but sort of left behind at various points in history having been used by some outside state. It’s certainly shaping up to be an interesting trip.
We have a long day of travel ahead of us, with Air Canada. A couple of minutes into the first flight the air hostess informs us they’ll be serving a hot meal, her colleague having just killed the chicken. Gas craic these Canadians. The entertainment screen map tells me the flight is 3,462 miles from Dublin to Toronto. I’ll have to work out the conversion myself. At times it feels like the longest flight ever, but that’s mainly because I’m thoroughly uncomfortable after my bug and the really annoying kids behind us kicking our chairs seem to think it’s funny to poke the bear. Their parents seem to give so little a shit it’s astonishing. Pathetic attempts to influence in any way. Lucky for us they’re either Canadian or American so whatever horrible men those two little shits grow up to be, at least we’ll be separated by the Atlantic.
Seven hours down, just another four hours now until our three and a half hour flight to Havana. José Marti Airport welcomes us with a few queues and about an hour wait for our bags. I’ve never seen bags arrive so randomly on the reclaim belt. The casa owner we booked with has sent a guy to collect us from the airport. As soon as we get in the car he informs us that Carmen’s Casa is closed and they have another casa for us. Thankfully we’ve read about this typical Cuban situation and just roll with it.
Our transportation is an old Soviet era Lada which has seen a few miles. Random parts of other mechanical devices have been clearly used to patch the old girl back together and it rattles and hums but not in a good way. We absolutely tear along the empty motorways of Havana toward to old town. Only just avoiding cyclists and the odd pedestrian chancing their luck dashing out in front of a car I’m pretty sure couldn’t stop even if our driver was willing to try.
We ask our driver where our new casa is and he simply tells us, ‘eh, Malecón’ and, ‘it’s good’ before it becomes very apparent that he hasn’t a clue where it is, checking the address on his phone several times while driving slowly looking intently at the buildings we pass. Eventually we arrive and are given the most lovely of welcomes from Señorita Nerza and her husband at Casa Sánchez.
Day 2: Havana
Breakfast in Casa Sánchez is ‘delicioso, pero demasiado’. We head out into the heat of Havana stuffed with fresh fruit, cheese, eggs and ham. We stroll ‘El Prado’ to work off some breakfast. We make it as far as the very colonial looking Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta before heading back into Old Havana.
We’ve been approached twice already by people giving us directions, advice and telling us about the Buena Vista Social Club and where to get our cigars cheap and with the government seal. It’s all a bit too much by the time we’ve been approached by number four or five. Precisely the same spiel but for where the music is. The part that eludes me is the lack of the sale. None of the guys try to sell us anything. Maybe there’s commission involved, but how would that even work…..we are not brought to the places except for once, when the guy told us he was playing in the show that night and we didn’t even buy tickets. He wandered off before we had even made a decision.
The classic Soviet and American cars are incredible. Some of them are amazingly well preserved. Kept in immaculate condition by their owners. Obviously the Cadillacs stand out, especially in pink and they parade up and down the streets slowing to shout at you to see if you need a taxi. It is blatantly obvious we are tourists. It’s impossible for us to blend in here, so many people we pass just say ‘hello’ to us. Probably assuming we’re American. I inform anyone who asks that we are in fact Irish and from Ireland or Irlandé. Every single person so far has heard Iceland. Perfecto.
On our way home we pop into our local for a beer with rum chaser. The Cuban standard for a dive bar. We have an awkward and prolonged conversation with a patron who buys us a croquette to wash our beer and rum down with. The two drinks mixed to make an Española something or other and croquette top off a classic combo, apparently. I wouldn’t be in any rush to recreate the taste. After a long and ambiguous conversation we head off to enjoy a mojito in a somewhat different bar. Football on and no one talking to us. Surrounded by fellow tourists where the mojitos are dangerously strong.
The light is being lost behind the buildings so we walk back to the Malecón to catch the sun setting behind Havana. It’s a beautiful sight. Plenty of other people have the same idea, but the atmosphere is actually just really relaxed. On the way back to our casa, I plant my foot right in the middle of some hard working individual’s cement. It could not have been more ruined. He just waves it off as if it’s nothing. The Cubans really are very friendly, and totally laid back. Orla points out that I’ve now ‘cemented myself in Havana’. Quite the dad joke.
For most of the day I can hear salsa music flowing out of various windows, doors and the cars that cruise past. The feel of Cuba is exactly as you might expect. By the time we get home I’ll never want to hear salsa music again. To top off a very Cuban scene we pass a guy fixing his car at the side of the street. Banging on an old motor piece. Salsa music is coming from somewhere again, and random old men sit smoking cigars and drinking bottles of beer while they watch a very different world move slowly past.
The power goes out right before we eat at a nearby restaurant. Dinner in the dark, but not in one of those fancy experimental restaurants. The waitress apologises and says, simply, ‘this is Cuba’.
Day 3: Havana
Our Casa is lovely, in particular our hosts could not be friendlier. Always welcoming us with a smile and a chat. Despite the language barrier. Cuba is like nowhere else I’ve been. The closest I’ve experienced is Morocco, but even at that it is not a close comparison. The buildings are worn, the roads could use plenty of repair work and every now and again you pass a structure that has completely collapsed inside, yet the place is beautiful. The attitude toward making things last is stunning. We have passed several men fixing their cars at the side of the road. The level of skill required to keep these old cars running must be immense even with the right equipment and tools. It’s a work of art to have them running with parts from radiators, furniture and other miscellanea.
At 10:30am, we attempt to get out of what we assume must be the mid-day sun. Not even close. We wander around the Revolution Museum and read all the, slightly, bias information. I mean, people are capable of about anything but it can’t all be America’s fault. Can it? We manage to buy some WiFi access in the Plaza hotel while we sip the world’s strongest espresso. We’re shaking half way through. Anyway, it’s good to let the folks know that we’ve arrived safe. Even if it is after three days. As we walk out of the hotel, the door men are denying some local kids access to the hotel, as foreigners stroll in and out unquestioned.
We get the wrong boat to Casablanca (Cuban Casablanca) and end up in Regla. Not the most touristy spot ever, but hey, real Cuba or whatever. We get some sort of pizza and have a wander before hopping on the ferry back. We stroll through Plaza de San Francisco and the surrounding colonial squares. They are definitely better maintained, possibly due to the proximity to the cruise ships that arrive probably quite regularly. There is a noticeable decline in the number of approaches you receive from locals. Again, more than likely a result of a lack of a need or a complacency maybe. Or perhaps even born of resentment.
We are certainly getting the Cuban experience of making things work when we can’t turn off the shower in our room. It requires the intervention of both our hosts to resolve the situation. Panic over, and we get a little lesson on how to use the shower without breaking it. To calm down we stroll around to Felix Paladar; a ‘paladar’ being a restaurant in someone’s house. We splash out on a lobster and prawn dinner, for about €30. We’ve definitely been over charged, but it’s hard to argue when the value for us is exceptional. We’re both a little underwhelmed by the food, but I suppose you don’t come to Cuba for the quality eats. This is probably the higher end, in terms of quality too, of what we have experienced anyway. Again, you just have to roll with Cuba. Don’t force it or you’ll end up hating it and yourself. It’s starting to become absolutely clear that you’ll either like it here or not. You can either accept the compromise for the rewards Cuba offers, or get back on the plane and forget about it.
I’m now being called ‘Castro’ by some of the locals. I’m not particularly political and I fear change so it must be the beard I guess. We stumble upon the Hemmingway bar, spend about two minutes hearing almost exclusively American accents with an air of pretension before walking straight out of the place. It’s not that it was absolutely full of tourists, but the fact that everyone seemed to be talking about how great Hemmingway was while chucking expensive cocktails down their necks and taking selfies with the bar.
We top the night off with a few mojitos in the Cha Cha Cha bar near the Museum de la Revolucion. You know it’s a tourist bar when the television is playing tourism adverts for Cuba on a loop. We’re already here lads, you’re wasting money advertising to the converted. The drinks are grand and they pour rum like it’s going off, so you couldn’t have many complaints, at least by the end anyway.
Day 4: Havana
After a bout of Cuban Belly, I’m a little wiped but our hosts organise our accommodation and transportation to Viñales for Wednesday. Despite our lack of any common ground in the language department we manage pretty well. My lobster in the paladar is looking like worse value all the time, but we’ll power through.
We walk about four kilometres to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, just off the Malecón, with a beautiful garden where we sit and drink Café Cortado while eating our peanut M&M’s. Classy. The hotel is incredibly historic and even Orla surprises me by taking one of the coasters from the bar as a souvenir. We sit and people watch for a while, explore the hotel and stroll through the gardens. They have a memorial sign where a tree was knocked down by Hurricane Irma, not three months ago. Quick turnaround. The hotel has an incredible view back toward Old Havana, topped by a clear blue sky and a giant waving Cuban flag.
We hop in a taxi to Plaza de la Revolucion as we feel we’ve done enough waking in the heat. There are an incredible number of turkey vultures circling the José Marti Memorial, for some reason. We get in trouble, twice. Army guys blowing whistles at us for hopping a chain rope and walking on the wrong side of a ramp. We get tired walking home in the heat so we hop in a bike taxi. The guy absolutely earns his six Cuban convertibles.
We start to think we’re definitely missing something. We’re usually pretty good at finding decent food. I mean, I like food. But here, it’s just not working out. It’s not like we’re fussy either. Our tolerance and acceptance level is very flexible but apart from breakfast and the one nice pork sandwich there is nothing to write home about. Our recent venture into another paladar ended with some of the driest chicken I’ve had, served with undercooked rice and beans. The rice was actually still hard. We’re going to have to up our game here to find some good food. We spotted a Chinatown on the map, so maybe there is hope. Apparently there was a significant Chinese population in Cuba at one point but not anymore. Chinatown now being mainly operating and maintained by Cubans. That might be the hope dashed. Maybe we can just eat Churros for the rest of the trip…..
Day 5: Havana
Something that strikes me as odd is the freedom we seem to have to walk in and out of hotels, restaurants and shops that the locals appear to lack. Being turned away without even a word. We’re charged more in restaurants that serve both locals and foreigners but you sort of just have to get passed that.
After a failed attempt to get a taxi to Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (only actual cars can go through the tunnel and we got the wrong boat the other day) we manage to pick up a lovely air conditioned taxi complete with seat belts. Castillo del Morro is one of the old Spanish forts. High walls that kept out the British, from the sea at least, and plenty of cannons left wasting away in the salty sea air. We climb all the way to the top of the light house, which stands tall over the fort, only to be told by a guy cleaning inside the glass top that the ‘lighthouse is closed’ as he motions that if ‘they’ see us he’ll get it; dragging his thumb across his neck to emphasise his concern. We go to leave, apologetic, but he insists we stay and take a few snaps, having made it this far. He even offers to take a few of Orla and I to remember the time we broke the rules in Castillo del Morro.
We take ‘el clasico’ taxi back to Plaza de San Francisco. To say the ride was rough is an understatement. Like being on a couch in the back of a tractor doing about 60 kilometres an hour on bumpy roads, no seat belts and cracked windows rolled back inside the doors, for safety obviously.
We calm the nerves with a sugar hit, provided by some damn fine churros, then coffee in the Café Paris as we watch people scurry about and listen to a pretty excellent salsa band. Our funds aren’t exactly low, but we decide maybe Viñales and even possibly Trinidad may not offer great access to cash, so we pop the old card into an ATM to be informed ‘transaction invalid’. Wonderful. Attempting to withdraw from the non-automated teller doesn’t work either until we get our passports. So, a quick trip back to the Casa Sánchez and we may be in gear. After waiting fifteen minutes in one bank only for customer 337 to be called we say ‘fuck it’ and go back to the other bank, our customer number being 355. It’s a bit further, but it is in the more touristy area of Calle Obispo, and they definitely cater to tourists more. After several hundred questions we walk out with some more dosh.
At dinner in a non paladar, my beer arrives in a copper mug. Literally the worst idea anyone has had. I can smell copper while I drink and, unless it’s psychological, taste it too. We order grilled vegetables with our dinner, which arrives as chips. So; ‘no veg, just send them out chips and say nothing’. Not the greatest meal ever, but bizarrely in second place for dinners in Cuba so far.
Day 6: to Viñales
A nice early start today, up just before 7am. Breakfast is the usual feast and Siñorita Nerza is her helpful, kind self. We will be travelling by ‘colectivo’ today. A sort of privately run, shared taxi type operation. It’s about the same cost as the Viazul bus service, but we don’t have to get to the Viazul terminal. In fact, we’re informed that our colectivo will pick us up from right outside the casa. Lovely. The taxi is an old ambulance and looks like the ghost buster’s car painted yellow, black and white. By the time pickup is complete we have nine people all in, including the driver. Two Portuguese travellers, two Dutch, a Canadian and a girl travelling solo from Japan as well as our good selves.
It’s a rough ride and about thirty minutes in, our driving pulls in to the side of the road, quite suddenly. Then he jumps out of the car shouting, ‘that’s my brother’ as he motions towards the other side of the highway. He runs through the traffic, which is light enough in fairness, for a chat. About fifteen minutes later we’re on the move again. After three hours odd we make it in one piece. The final few kilometres over the hills felt a bit hairy. Siñorita Nereyda welcomes us to Viñales with mango juice to refresh and insists we take some fruit. She seems quite excited to have a married Irish couple staying with her. We haven’t the heart to break it to her. We have a stroll around the town and get some lunch, which is a marked step up from Havana.
Unfortunately, Viñales seems to be set up to have everything organised through a casa. We don’t seem to be making much headway with information about just getting a taxi somewhere to swim or to a cave. We decide to just hang around today and do a day of activities tomorrow, including some unwanted horse riding, which it doesn’t seem like we could have avoided.
Day six in Cuba and we’re experiencing our first rain. Thunder, lightning and a seriously heavy downpour. It is absolutely wonderful though, sitting sipping a couple of Bucaneros, our choice of local cerveza, while watching from a bar just around the corner from our casa. The odd power outage is definitely manageable here. Bizarrely, the lights are still on but everything else is gone, and it seems to take more than a fuse or trip switch to rectify as the local utilities guys arrive to suss it out.
Dinner back at Casa Nereyda is sensational. A massive feast of pork, rice, frijoles and fried plantane. We don’t even come close to finishing it, which we’re told is a compliment. If we finished everything it means our host has not provided enough food. Mr. Nereyda is strolling about topless as we eat and general family life continues around us. It’s quite a nice way to experience another country. You definitely feel welcome, and while a fuss is made, it doesn’t feel like an awkward one. Sort of like you’re visiting family, which is probably impossible to achieve consciously.
Day 7: Viñales Valley
We’re going horse riding through the national park in Viñales today. We’re told maybe 5 or 6 hours on horseback. Orla has never been on a horse before and it’s been probably fifteen years since I was on one. Should be interesting. The valley is beautiful. We see tobacco plantations, coffee and sugar cane. It’s all very interesting and the views are spectacular. The big overwhelming problem was being on a horse for so long. Horses that seemed knackered. Orla’s horse, Morro, literally stumbling in the heat as we traversed the muddy path. The rain which fell last night did not help the situation. It was definitely uncomfortable and if we could have walked we would have. It didn’t seem like an option though. Also, they failed to mention anywhere before the tour that there is no tobacco at the moment. Neither growing that we can see, nor drying in the houses. The highlight was getting to try some naturally produced cigars. No additives and no commercial production methods, which the government use to produce Cohiba cigars and the like. We get a demonstration of the wrapping and sealing of a cigar with honey. They show us around the coffee plantation, and try to sell us rum, coffee and cigars from the 10% they get to keep. The other 90% of tobacco is sold to the government. By the time we’re done, we are done. Orla comments that this has been her first, and last, time on a horse.
After some eggs for lunch (lots of eggs here in Cuba), we head to the Cueva del Indio. An incredible cave topped by the most tropical looking mountain. Palm trees, birds chirping and water running. It looks and sounds like the jungle. It is totally amazing. The tour is a short walk followed by a short boat trip and as we walk out the other side, the taxi driver who brought us is standing waiting for us. Perfect. Back in town we pop over to the churros stand, just to top up the sugar levels before a brief rest and then back out for dinner. I’m wearing my Leinster jersey, and as we stroll out of the restaurant we get a shout ‘come on the boys’ from four Irish lads in Viñales. You can’t go anywhere.
Back at the Casa, we settle up and Nereyda recommends her friends Casa in Trinidad for us. After a brief telephone call, Nereyda hands me the phone to speak to Mary. We’ve been described as a ‘married couple’ by many people so far, and Mary thinks it will be great to have a nice married Irish couple staying with her. I can confirm, having spoken to Mary, that she is in fact the only non-Irish Mary on the planet. We now have accommodation organised for Trinidad. Cuba is interesting in that way. You could get here with nothing booked (and we effectively did), but you will never go without a bed. Someone will know someone who will sort you out and the worst case scenario is knocking on doors asking for a bed, because every house is a casa it seems.
Day 8: to Trinidad
The Viazul set up is absolutely chaos. People randomly waiting around to get on the bus and a load more still queuing to buy tickets at 6:30am. We get jostled around from place to place while the Viazul guys shout ‘Trinidad?’ and ‘Cienfuegos?’ at random intervals. Eventually we get on the bus, and having paid 37 CUC each, a guy I didn’t need to put my bag on the bus literally won’t let me get on without paying him ‘for the bag’. Ludicrous.
The Viazul timetable informs us that the journey time is about nine hours, despite the route planner on my phone telling me it’s a drive of about half that. It quickly becomes clear where the extra time is coming from when we make stop three inside two hours. Orla is reading so I’m going to make my way through the three Father John Misty albums as Cuba drifts past. Perfecto. I’ll have to think of something else to do for the remaining five hours.
Stop six, or maybe seven occurs near Playa Largo in a place which looks like it exists around the buses passing through. We grab an expensive sandwich and sit and watch about twenty lizards run up and down the wooden beams which support the palm tree roof. Turns out to be kind of a nice spot.
Fun fact no. 1: the flight time to Cuba from Dublin is about the same duration as the bus journey from Viñales to Trinidad. That’s nice to know.
We make it to Trinidad more or less in one piece. We’re welcomed by Miguel of Casa Mi Osi, our booking having been changed since last night, without our consent or knowledge. Typical Cuba. It’s absolutely for the best as we enter a stunning house and huge, beautiful room. Our hosts; Miguel and Osilda are incredibly friendly and seem quite excited to have Irish people staying with them. They give us bracelets to remind us of our stay with them. We sit and have a mango juice, chatting away for a while, somewhere between English and Spanish. It’s all really very nice. Especially after about nine hours on a bus.
Trinidad already feels more relaxed than Havana but with more happening than Viñales. Sort of a middle ground. After dinner we grab a beer from a guy in a window, he’s selling some unknown draft beer, we sit in the main square sipping away until the guy next to us gets attacked by a frog and we move on to a local bar for a night cap. Followed by another night cap on the balcony of our casa, as I lament not being the guy attacked by a frog. That would have been cool.
Day 9: Trinidad
It’s not easy to have a lie in here, by 6am you can hear the diesel engines roar around the streets and the traders calling out, advertising their goods, as they push their wooden carts over the cobbled road. You hear the odd horse trot by too and parents call to their children as if they were in another country. There is much to hear in Trinidad in the mornings. Breakfast is once more the meal of the day, some spread is put out and it is worth fuelling up. Who knows when we’ll eat again…….it could be two….three hours even.
We make a quick stop at a hotel to change some cash before grabbing a taxi to Playa del Ancón. Again the journey is rough as we bounce around the back of a classic Cadillac. Playa Ancón is a nice beach, the sun is shining and we take several dips in the Caribbean Sea. It’s hot, and I’m paranoid about getting burnt so I spend a lot of my time scooting in and out of the sun. Kind of like the tiny hermit crab who is keeping us company. The water is extremely refreshing in contrast to the sun which, between the clouds, beats down. After a while it’s too much and we wander to get a coffee and some shade. We meet a Norwegian lady who lived in Dundalk twenty something years ago and sends her regards, with us, to Ireland. As we walk away, a suspiciously convenient taxi driver is waiting to take us back to Trinidad. Vida difícil.
You’d need a rest after all that relaxing in the sun. So, after a brief siesta we wander around to find a churros guy for a pre-dinner snack. Bizarrely, he’s topping the sugar and cinnamon off with condensed milk. Luckily Orla catches him just in time with what seemed like the slowest motion ‘noooooooo’. Miguel and Osilda are sorting us out with dinner this evening, and we’ve been promised the chef special gambas, so we share the churros to avoid ruining our dinner. Our mams would be so proud.
Dinner is incredible. The best meal we’ve had in Cuba for sure. We leave the table, barely, having had some sensational gambas and some kind of Cuban fish that lives at the mouth of the river but is also like salmon but white (according to Miguel, though I was immensely confused while he explained it), served with perfect rice and veg. We’ll need rolling home please.
Later as we drink straight rum, not a care in the world, we’re informed the bar is closing at 10pm due to the elections tomorrow or some such. Absolutely outraged we wander, about twenty metres before finding a bar that serves us a couple of cocktails. They close too, but after we explain our Irishness they let us have one more drink. Then another, and then one more for the road. A Cuban lock-in no less.
Day 10: Trinidad
Today Orla and I are going to explore the streets of Trinidad. This is our third day here and we haven’t even seen the Plaza Mayor yet. That is about to change. We even get in the iconic towered building of the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis which now houses the Museo de la Lucha Contra Bandidos. The museum is not great, but probably worth it for the view from the tower which we forgot to check out, only remembering later when we looked back at it. Trinidad is pretty relaxed and very beautiful, we effortlessly lose a few hours just strolling around the streets having coffee and just watching people trying to avoid the rain which is so ridiculously light that it barely qualifies.
It’s election day in Sancti Spiritus and, according to Miguel, people are delighted to be casting their votes in a particularly democratic process. Miguel’s neighbour is running for regional office and possibly even more depending on how it goes. There is an abundance of polling stations around the place and they seem to be fairly busy, we start to become concerned that the shops, cafés and restaurants might not be open today. First World problems and all that. Thankfully it’s business as usual for the most part. I’m all for democracy, just once it doesn’t interfere with our holiday!
Despite Trinidad being a city, we’re totally chilled having walked a fair aul section of what’s there to see. Apart from our brief excursion into the less well-off area where children ask us for chewing gum, then clothes and finally money before several young gentlemen seem to follow us, no one really bothers you much. There’s no mad rush, or that hustle that you would usually associate with a city. There definitely isn’t the same madness that Havana has.
Continuing the mellow day, we stumble upon a restaurant that looks familiar and treat ourselves to dinner in La Botija which has a queue out the door and around the corner by the time we leave. We just floated in about twenty minutes before the crowd started to gather. Not worth queueing for at all really. The food was only ok and they had no Cuban beers left. Later we walk up to catch some salsa music at the Casa de la Musica. The waiter serving us beer on the steps in La Plaza Mayor confuses Orla by doing the ‘La cuenta’ in reverse; she thinks he’s asking for a pen. Absolutely priceless. I just sit back and watch it unfold. The salsa is grand, but it’s all very cruise ship entertainment. It’s good fun though, and sure they’re not hurting anyone. Afterwards we attempt to get a night cap with the opposite result to yesterday’s. Not a single beer to be found it would seem. Very odd. Maybe the shipment comes in on Monday?!?
Day 11: Topes de Collantes & the Gran Parque Natural
We meet our casa mates from Estonia at breakfast this morning. They relate their horror story of a three hour cycle to a water fall in the National Park from here. I have to reassure Orla that it will be grand, but I really haven’t a clue. Hopefully she still loves me when we get back. To the mountains!
We drive to a small village in the mountains where we stroll about for a bit before heading off down a road toward the Pico del Potrerillo and it’s 800 odd metre summit. Our commencement point to the top starts at El Manantial, a rural casa that sits on the side of the hill next to a river and manmade pool fed by a mountain river flowing directly into it. It’s an absolutely stunning place and where we’ll be having lunch when we return from our hike. The trek up the last few hundred metres has us crossing a wooden rope bridge and losing our footing plenty of times on the mud as a local dog, who has joined us, darts past us sending us sliding more often than is comfortable. But, the view from the top is worth all the stumbles. We can see Trinidad in the distance, Playa Ancón, the Caribbean Sea and are surrounded by luscious green hills and a valley which snakes through the mountains.
As we descend we can see the smoke from the fire at El Manantial and as we approach we get a wonderful smell of wood burning as well as our lunch cooking. It’s is truly idyllic. As we sit tucking into flame grilled chicken and unknown vegetables, a growing number of cats and dogs appear. They seem familiar with the surroundings and Miguel informs us that they are ‘casa pets’. The cats are not shy with their claws and both Orla and I end up with puncture wounds on our hands as we try to offer some small morsels of chicken to our new feline friends.
The drive back takes in some incredible views and some fairly terrifyingly steep roads which, to be fair, our Lada manages well enough. Miguel explains that plenty of people have died on these roads and points out at least two corners that are known as ‘corner of death’. Says it all really.
Cuban people apparently think it unimaginable to walk for pleasure, so Miguel must be a man alone in the nation as he was extremely excited to bring us out in the mountains today. Showing us carnivorous plants that recoil when you flick them and having us chew coffee beans right from the plant at random. At least I think they were coffee beans?!? We were shown plants from the age of the dinosaur, the oldest unchanged on the planet apparently. Altogether an incredibly interesting day.
Back in Trinidad, we get the usual churros from the vendor who recognises us and our order, no condensed milk thank you, before doing some shady dealings to buy some cigars in a bar. The guy heads off for ten minutes before returning with a backpack, closing the doors of the bar and checking around him to make sure he is secure. The fuss, apparently, due to the fact that he can sell them in his house, but not this bar or something. All very James Bond for a technicality.
There are so many places to get a drink in Cuba, or at least Trinidad and Havana. If you’re drinking rum or rum based cocktails you’ll have no issues at all. In fact, it’s easier to get a mojito than a coffee. Beer is a different story. They seem to regularly run out, almost city wide. It’s bizarre. We have found a cool bar a short distance from the Plaza Mayor in the four nights we’ve been here though. Currency hanging from the ceiling, old tube televisions for tables and a bath tub in one corner that doubles as a seat. It’s tiny, and gets exceptionally hot as it appears to always be full. Café Dolce is definitely worth a visit, especially when you can walk Trinidad in less than half an hour, you’ll never be too far away.
Day 12: to Varadero
With the mixed bag that Viazul threw at us; the ridiculous queues, the crazy stoppages and the nine hour journey time, we opt for the colectivo again to Varadero, despite Viazul being air conditioned. Unfortunately, I’m up front in an old Volkswagen with no seat belt and an unknown indicator light on the dashboard that is constantly red. Should be fine though….right?!? It’s like a fucking roller-coaster at times, where the dashboard that is two foot from your torso is your protective bar. That and we’re sharing with a bit of a dick from Spain who sniggers at Orla for her pronunciation of Varadero, telling her ‘that’s not the way the locals say it’. For the record, his English is comical. Not that I’m judging, as my Spanish is atrocious, but if you’re going to throw stones, you should at least have a better footing when doing so.
We come across two trucks bet into each other en route, or at least it looks that way. One is tilted on one side and the other looks like it’s missing the front. As they clear the road and we pass the incident, there is barely a scratch on either old Soviet beast. Incredible. Even more so when I check the map and it tells us we’re in Crimea, a small village somewhere in Cuba.
Having had a fifteen minute stop at a Policia check point at the start of the Hicacos Paninsula where our colectivo driver has to explain the reason for him attempting to access the resort strip we finally check in, early, to the Blau Varadero. Chancing our arm at only 1pm and our room is ready. The room is massive; two balconies, a living room and a huge bedroom as well as two bathrooms. Apparently every hotel past the only golf course in Cuba is all inclusive, and it’s all too much. Food everywhere, unlimited drinks and snacks. We settle in pretty well, but the whole set up is way too excessive. It’s expensive by Cuban standards so we make an attempt to increase our value here by drinking, maybe one too many, gin and tonics as we move into the early hours of the morning.
Day 13: Varadero
The hotel is a very different experience to Cuba. It feels like we’ve left the island altogether and have travelled to a resort in a different country. I can’t imagine spending all of our time here and missing out on so much of Cuba. It’s no wonder that there are all manner of excursions offered, in a sort of vague attempt to give people a taste of Republica de Cuba, but a taste for those who can’t go without the comforts of home or the false securities of such a fancy hotel, spending two or three weeks behind the barrier.
Looking around you can see plenty of guests have developed that false friendship with some of the staff. Elaborate greetings and forced interest from the staff, fully aware that once the guest leaves they’ll never hear from them again. But in this moment you’d swear they were family.
On the beach while we’re walking, we spot about four pelicans, circling a particular spot in the sea. As we get closer there’s a man, whistling at them and indicating with hand gestures to the birds. They land in the water and gradually swim toward the shore. The guy walks out and throws a net, catching a number of small fish. Incredibly, it appears he has the birds trained to spot the fish and then he nets them, giving them a few for their work. Our plan to take a sunset dip in the sea is in need of a change of location as Orla is terrified by the pelicans. As I’m gawking at them I say something trivial, probably a joke, to Orla with no response. I turn, and she is about 200 metres away from me, in about 8 seconds. World record stuff.
Day 14: Varadero
Playa de Varadero is certainly a beautiful beach. The weather is fantastic and we’ve become so relaxed it’s hard to focus on what time or even day it is. It is very artificial though, and the constant need for the hotel to put on entertainment is mind numbing. We find ourselves moving to a different section at times when the singer, clown or magician becomes too much. Yep, that’s right, clown.
You sort of lose track of reality here. Today at one point I engaged in the very thing that annoyed me yesterday. The false friendship with a staff member. Playing little jokes with each other. He instigated with a tap on my shoulder, sending me looking the other way. I was fully complicit though, laughing away at the jibe. Afterwards, I just had to take stock of my life and wonder where it all went so wrong. Another sunset swim in the Gulf of Mexico should set me right.
Apart from people working here, there doesn’t seem to be a Cuban within a few kilometres of the place. I’m amazed by the number of German people here, at least until we spot all the German awards the hotel appears to have been bestowed.
Day 15: Varadero
It’s too cloudy for its own good today and our specially honed instincts, developed over years of living with more than our share of rain in Ireland, tell us something heavier than a light shower is on the cards. By midday it’s absolutely pissing rain with no signs of stopping. Maybe the rain is here to help us adjust back to reality. After several days of hotel living I decide it must be time to venture outside the protective walls of our accommodation and wander over to the ecological reserve that is dotted along the side of the peninsula opposite the beach. It’s a beautiful network of estuaries surrounded by forest and it looks a lot like the Everglades of Florida. Not particularly accessible but worth a stroll alongside all the same.
We’re booked in for the a la carte for our last meal in the Caribbean, for now. As Cuba comes to a close we’re already talking about where next to travel. There’s something wrong with us. We’ll be up so early tomorrow, and out the door that it could hardly count as another day. The up side is, we’ll get about a day and a half to explore Toronto.
Day 16: to Toronto
Starting the day with a 6am taxi to José Marti airport in Havana from Varadero. Our last few hours in Cuba and we might actually be awake for the sunrise. Unfortunately, it’s hidden behind a forest to the rear of our car as we head west. Oh well, we’ve all seen a sunrise anyway. Havana International airport is comically inefficient. It takes the check-in people two attempts to pick a desk to use, then about fifteen minutes to check two passengers in. They even manage to wallop Orla on the head with a sign in their almost comatose state. Luckily, we’re forth in line, so it only takes about half an hour for us to get checked in. After that it’s security, where the painting we purchased causes some issues due to the fact that we don’t have an export slip. I have to fork out three CUC to the customs guy to grease the wheels. I’m pretty sure we got away with it though, as I had about 55 cigars in my back pack that I’m actually positive the x-ray guy was pointing out to customs, and not the painting. It’s the usual slow goodbye as we sit, waiting in a departures lounge for our flight to Toronto. Time to reflect on our trip and lament the changes we can see on the horizon of Cuba, even having never been here before, just talking to our hosts and encountering the differences from the latest guide books to what is on the ground.
Cuba is unlike anywhere I’ve been. I’ve never felt more removed from the world or a greater sense of separation from home than I’ve felt here. There is great poverty, but certainly no shortage of happiness. The Cubans we met were always delighted to welcome us and offer assistance where they could. To the point where your cynical side could click in and question the motivation. Sure they were sometimes trying to sell you something or promote a restaurant from which they might receive a commission, but why not?!? If it means putting food on the table, you can’t argue with such an insignificant inconvenience for us. It’s all about context. Often they just wanted to talk to us, ask us where we hailed from and wish us a happy holiday. Not a bad way to be.