08 March 2008 – Cuba Trip

posted by: Justin

Havana – 21 Feb to 24 Feb

We arrived in Havana in the early afternoon and by the time we had changed some money at the airport and shared a cab into town with a French guy we met it was around 16:00. The cab driver charged us CUC$30 which we later found should have been more like CUC$25 but no biggie. Our first night was spent with Roberti y Ladys as our original choice of Casa Mercedes couldn’t take us due to some weird security restrictions related to a religious visit taking place at a nearby cathedral. We dumped our stuff in a basic but OK room changed into shorts, sandals and t-shirts and headed out to explore what we could which gave us a mixed first impression of Havana as we headed to the Malecon and into Centro Havana rather than Havana Vieja.

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The next day we met the people sharing our Casa from the UK and tagged along on a fascinating walking tour they had arranged after moving to our original Casa Mercedes. This was really interesting and it was good to talk with the Cuban guide about the city and her day to day life in general. We ended the day a little foot sore and with our heads overflowing with facts and knowledge about mainly Havana Vieja. Our host at Casa Mercedes had prepared us a list of recommended casa particulares which would prove very useful throughout the rest of our trip.

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On our third day in Havana we set out to walk through Centro Havana towards the University and then onto Revolution Square. Centro Havana was filled with Saturday morning bustle of kids playing baseball, fruit and veggie markets and miscellaneous cars, bikes and donkey carts. Revolution square was imposing empty of people and hard to imagine it filled with crowds absorbing the words of politics. A quick ride in one of the fleet of Coco taxis took us to the Coppelia ice cream palace a Cuban institution but where we were relegated to a tourist only stand which was a little disappointing as masses of locals queued around the block to get in. We ended the day with a last night in Havana Vieja drinking beers at a taverna and listening to one of the many roving music groups.

Vinales Valley – 24 Feb to 26 Feb

We caught a Viazul bus to the Vinales Valley which took around 3 hours and was our first taste of Cuban road systems where all traffic horses, buses, bicycles, cars, trucks etc share a motorway with no obvious lanes that seems to go on forever in either direction. When we reached Vinales itself we headed off to our pre-booked hotel La Ermita situated high on the hills above the Vinales town-ship. The 20min walk up to the hotel was not recommended by locals but gave some awesome views along the valley. After checking in we proceeded to go for a very welcome swim in the pool and then retired to our terrace to drink rum and cokes while watching the sun set. Very easy to close your eyes and imagine a life that was like this permanently.

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Waking up and having a leisurely breakfast we walked into town around 9:30 hoping to rent bikes for a days cycling around the valley only to find that all the hikes were long gone. Not to be put off we decided to walk our way to a few of the local sites which were only a few kilometers away according to our guide book. The guide book author has obviously not walked the road before as it is much further than a few kilometers. Along the way a man in a horse and cart picked us up as we looked pretty tired. He dropped us at the first Cuevas Del Indio which was fairly disappointing filled with a large empty bar. We continued up the road to the next much more interesting cave where we went on a short boat trip before sitting out the midday sunshine and beginning our walk back to town.

Trinidad – 26 Feb to 28 Feb

The next morning we were picked up by a private taxi with the same couple from Havana we went on the walking tour with for the trip to Trinidad. This was a much quicker and only slightly more expensive option than catching a bus via Havana. Arriving in Trinidad in the afternoon we dropped our stuff off at our casa and went out for a walk around Trinidad taking in the central plaza and walking to the top of a nearby hill for some amazing views across Trinidad and out to the coast. Later in the evening we watched some live music sitting on the steps at the Casa de Musica.

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The next day in Trinidad we went for a longer walk up the hill from the previous evening and then proceeded downhill through the old city and into the more residential areas to the South and East of the city. The city is very compact meaning it is easy to explore the whole thing in a day or so. We also visited the Bandit museum and climbed to the top of the bell tower which presented a lot of good photo opportunities. This evenings music at the Casa de Musica featured a lot more salsa style dancing and felt a little contrived due to the number of tourists watching but was still entertaining.

La Boca – 28 Feb to 01 Mar

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The next day we headed off to La Boca for our first taste of Cuban beaches. We had picked La Boca as it was close to Trinidad and the beautiful Ancon peninsula. Arriving at our recommended casa we felt instantly relaxed with views across the beach from the porch and the only sounds those of fishermen working on their boats down the dusty road. To complete the perfect picture the garden had a resident hummingbird who seemed interested in our presence on the porch. In the afternoon we borrowed a couple of old bikes complete with semi-flat tyres and a seat that was not fixed in place. We persevered with them though and cycled the length of the peninsula around 6km from our casa stopping for an afternoon swim at a beach attached to one of the resorts.

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We had today hoped to do some more cycling in the surrounding countryside but based on the quality of the bikes we decided to opt for another day at the beach instead. We set out around 10am and stopped at the first beach we had passed the day before which was almost deserted except for the friendly attendant who told us he had shivered his way through the previous night when the temperature had plummeted to 10 degrees or so. We spent the day swimming and lazing on the beach here with afternoon snorkeling showing up an amazing variety of fish of all types and colours on the nearby coral reef.

Today we were due to depart for Santa Clara by bus in the afternoon so spent a couple of hours wandering around La Boca and watching the local fishermen. We also got a small taste of how La Boca fills with locals at the weekend as a busload of people arrived and were I think amazed that we as tourists had chosen La Boca over the resorts further down the peninsula.

Santa Clara – 01 Mar to 02 Mar

As we left Trinidad by bus the most major rain of our trip began and quickly turned into a torrential downpour showing how the countryside around Trinidad remains so green and fertile. We arrived in Santa Clara after around 3 hours or so where it was still bucketing down and were met by the host of our casa Hugo who quickly bundled us into a horse and covered wagon taxi for the trip into town. The driver setup a tarpaulin arrangement that was pretty good at keeping us dry and we galloped off to Hugo’s casa.

We went out in search of dinner to find Santa Clara a fairly dark city with intermittent power supply to the street lights. We eventually found a local place to eat where we paid in local pesos making it one of the cheapest meals we ate in Cuba. After dinner despite this being a university town we couldn’t find all that much to do and ended up heading home fairly early.

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The next day was spent visiting the various Che Guevara memorials and absorbing life in the central square of Santa Clara where we managed to eat a wide range of street food mainly different types of deep fried batter. In the early evening we caught a bus to Varadero home of the all inclusive resort and hundreds of package holiday makers.

Varadero – 02 Mar to 04 Mar

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We ended up staying in an OK hotel almost on the beach and spent the next two days swimming, eating weird food types like Cuban/Chinese and generally soaking up sunshine. Varadero is a weird slice of the western world in Cuba complete with Mini-Putt golf, loads of traffic and tacky souvenirs. Its main redeeming feature is the beach which is beautiful and even when filled with people it’s still possible to find a quiet spot to down a few rum and cokes.

Havana – 04 Mar to 06 Mar

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We returned to Havana to spend our last few days in Cuba exploring the parts of the city we had missed first time round which included Havana del Este and its various fortresses, Casa Blanca and the Malecon. The Malecon on this particular afternoon remains one of my personal highlights of our trip with blazing sunshine, huge waves and stacks of people screaming at the sea as it soaked them to the skin. We had a last Mojito on the roof of Ambos Mundos where we heard the 9pm cannon explosion and watched lightning play across the sky as if in reply.

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