A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: kforge

SAN JUAN

Arrival by ferry from Santo Domingo and sudden decision to run away

sunny 30 °C

Friday December 27
We slept well and disembarked at 8:15am but had 1 ½ hours in queue for immigration. Got interrogated by customs as we didn’t tell them we’d be in Cuba and, of course, they knew we’d flown to Nassau
Taxi from terminal to Old San Juan was set price of $15
Check in was 3pm and even though studio owner Ralph said he’d try to get there earlier, it looked like a long wait, so we had breakfast in Café Isabella just of Callle de la Cruz and were just about to ask if we could leave our bags there for a few hours, when Ralph sent a text to say he was at the studio – it seemed like a good start, however:

We had read a recent review of the studio and thought some of the comments were strange – "it was very hot" (even though the review said there were fans and air-con) and "only 4 channels on the satellite TV" (even though Ralph said there were over 100 channels). And this is what we found -

Internet did not work and the owner did not get it going all day. Most of the channels on the TV had to be paid for. Once we’d settled in, we realised there were no opening windows in the place, well there was one but the blind in front of it was broken and the wooden shutter was barred. The place was suffocating at night - the 2 doors could be opened but, of course, could not be left open at night. The mattress on the sofa-bed was unusable – I have no idea how anyone could have slept on it previously as it wouldn’t even support Jeni’s weight; it was a very, very old mattress with a thin layer of foam laid on top of it under a sheet. Jeni had to sleep on the floor and I attempted to sleep on the sofa after we’d re-assembled it. The bathroom was the smallest we’d ever seen (smaller than the bathroom on the ferry) and I could not walk into it without turning sideways

That night we decided to leave the next morning - will will have to fight for a refund when back in Australia

And Old San Juan really is very nice - we had a few hours walking in the town before the "discoveries" in the apartment

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Saturday December 28
We got out and about early so we could look for another place to stay. We finally found a room just a 2-minute walk from the apartment, a miracle actually, as more than one hotel told us that yesterday there were no rooms available in the whole metropolitan area!

After moving all of stuff in (including 5 days worth of groceries!), we took a taxi to beachside Condado to see if anything was available there. After about 2 hours trudging around we found a reasonable room in the Sandy Beach Hotel just 25 metres from the beach (a bargain at $165/night) - not a great beach, not a great hotel ande definitely not a great area (much like the Gold Coast)

Back in Old San Juan, we spent the evening wandering around and enjoying the beautifully-restored colonial buildings

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Sunday December 29
After a morning visit to the Castillo San Cristobal, we packed up and moved over to the Sandy Beach Hotel and had a wander along the very windy beach. In the evening, we were lucky enough to come across a free jazz concert in a local beachfront park - a great band and thousands of, mainly local, people enjoying the music and having a few beers

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Monday December 30
We had a 3-month-old reservation with Avis for the 1st of January but when we called to confirm the pick-up time, they would not guarantee we would actually get a car (if fact they said it was extremely unlikely) because of the unprecedented number of people in this area around Christmas/New Year (and Enterprise and Hertz said exactly the same thing). There was no way we wanted to stay any longer in Condado and the brief thought of taking a cruise from San Juan soon disappeared. So that was it - we decided to cut our losses and head back to Byron. We had a very convoluted 40-hour route via Miami and New York back to Los Angeles where we picked up the Qantas A380 to Sydney and then a Jetstar flight to Ballina/Byron. Not a great ending to the trip but then it just wasn't a great trip

Posted by kforge 18:10 Archived in Puerto Rico Comments (0)

SANTO DOMINGO

Santiago de Cuba to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic

sunny 28 °C

Monday December 23
The taxi to the airport was only $10 but we gave the driver $13 as it is such a long way out of town (but only 15 minutes on the motorway)

There was virtually no-one at the airport and check-in took just a few minutes. As with information everywhere else in Cuba, we got 3 different stories from the staff about how and when to pay for Departure Tax - the procedure is: check in first (you need the boading pass to pay the tax), then go to the Departure Tax window/office and pay CUC25 for each person (Cuban CUC cash only) and finally go through passport control. In Santiago Airport there is a currency exchange office in the check-in area and also one in the departure lounge, together with a small cafe and a few small souvenir stalls

The plane left about 30 minutes late at 12 pm (originally from Holguin, I think) and we had a very good 80-minute flight with Cubana on a 100-seater Antonov 158 jet. The only slight hiccup was the vegetarian meal - sliced carrots and green beans, cooked but cold and the strange thing is we had never seen a carrot the whole time we were travelling in Cuba. But, most airlines stuff up the vegie meals!

Santo Domingo airport is quite large but there was only one other plane around and we got through immigration and customs reasonably quickly, paying US10 each Arrival Tax (there is currency exchange right next passport control where you go after paying). We already had US Dollars, so I'm not sure if you can pay in Dominican Pesos. The whole arrival process could have been even faster if Cubana had given us the 2 lenghty customs and immigration forms to fill in on the plane

We had pre-booked a taxi through our hotel and the driver was waiting as we exited. 30 minutes and US$40 later we were at the Hotel Conde de Penalba right in the centre of the Zona Colonial. Both US$ and Dominican Pesos are accepted everywhere

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Tuesday December 24
Our first stop in the morning was a travel agent to find out about the ferry to San Juan in Puerto. She advised us that th ferry was full on Boxing Day but we could fly for US$310 each - now I have travelled on a few large ferries and have never come across one that was full, and this one takes 1,500 people. As it turned out, the ferry office was just a couple of minutes walk away from our hotel and, of course, there was plenty of room - we booked a 4-berth cabin with en-suite (it would be just us, they assured us) for US$293 for the 12-hour voyage, leaving at 7 pm and arriving in San Juan at 7 am

We then thought we'd have a look in the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, a large hotel located in a 16th centry mansion. The hotel is stunning and has a lovely pool area overlooking the ferry terminal and, at this time, the ferry itself

From there we strolled around the Zona Colonial to see the Panteon Nacional, The Governor's Palace where Christobel Colon lived in 1504 and the Alcazar de Colon where Diego Colon (his son) lived in 1511. And, after a good meal at our hotel's restaurant (just about the only one open in the old town), we ambled 100 metres across the plaza to look at the Cathedral which was founded in 1494

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Wednesday December 25
There was very little open today but there were lots of people in the cathedral plaza just enjoying Christmas Day. We did take a walk around another part of the old town and came across a building with dozens of large metal sculptures on one of the side walls. There is also a lot of creative cabling in the streets

In the evening we overdosed on felafel and hummus at the excellent El Rey del Felafel restaurant in Calle Sanchez (corner of Padre Billini) and then as we made our way back through the milling crowds in the streets and plazas, discovered a free classical concert being held in the cathedral and broadcast live outside in the courtyard

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Thursday December 26
As the cathedral was just across the plaza from the hotel, we thought we'd better have a look inside - unfortunately it's not worth the effort (but only costs 40 DOP, about $1). From there, we visited the Museo de las Casas Reales (100 DOP) – it's the old governor's residence and is a lovely building with enough interesting items to keep you occupied for an hour or so. On the other hand, the Alcazar de Colon (100 DOP), is only interesting for its connection with the Colon (Columbus) family - Cristopher's son Diego lived here from 1511

We paid $20 for a late check-out, and at 4pm took an easy, 5-minute walk to ferry terminal. Although the ferry left at 7pm, the early boarding process was necessary because it can take 1,000 passengers and cars. We had a short delay because they wanted to see our ESTA visa for the USA (Puerto Rico is a US "colony") and it's actually an electronic visa! Anyway, they somehow managed to get a copy of it printed and the rest of the boarding process was easy

The cabin was surprisingly large, especially when 2 top bunks were closed up, and it had very good en-suite bathroom. One thing we hadn't realised, was that the ferry bars and restaurants only accepted US dollars and there was no currency exchange on-board. As we only had a few dollars, the prospect of a 12-hour fast loomed. And then, we discovered that we could pay by Visa - so we had a good meal in the a-la-carte restaurant which tuned out cheaper than the all-you-can-eat buffet - $37.40 for 2 large pastas, large salad, 2 cheesecakes and 2 complimentary glasses of red wine (the buffet was $16,95 each without wine).

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Posted by kforge 11:10 Archived in Dominican Republic Comments (0)

SANTIAGO DE CUBA - AGAIN

Baconao to Santiago

sunny 30 °C

Saturday December 21
We left Costa Morena right after breakfast. We had decided to spend the next 2 nights in Santiago de Cuba, even though we disliked the place, probably at the Hotel Las Americas just down from the expensive Hotel Melia

Driving back along the coast, we just couldn’t resist the Valle de la Prehistoria – it’s a huge park studded with giant, concrete prehistoric dinosaurs and other animals. It cost $1 each to get in and $1 to take photos. It was the best maintained place we had seen and was full of school children, dancers in one of the 4 cafes and lots of other people strolling around its hundreds of acres. It was great fun

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The Hotel Las Americas was only $80/night but not that pleasant and right next to a very loud nightclub that was already blasting out its music at 11:30 in the morning. Cubans must spend more money per capita on huge speakers than anyone else in the world

And so we returned to the Hotel Melia, a place we didn’t like that much - but it does have a large pool area, a 15th floor rooftop bar and satellite TV with football and movies and news. No special deals this time - $140 for the 1st night and, because Sunday is the start of the high season, $200 for the 2nd night.- that’s how desperate we were and we’re not even Canadian

We returned the car to Rent-a-Car (next to the hotel) and got a refund for the unused 2 days without any argument

We swam all afternoon; well actually I watched football most of the afternoon and had a very pleasant meal with wine in their “Restaurante Italiano”

Sunday December 22
During the day we did nothing but swim and watch football. In the evening, we were having a cocktail on the rooftop terrace (alone, as usual) when I noticed that one the the nearby main streets looked like it had been shut to traffic. The bar staff confirmed that this was done every Sunday so that a very large street-party could take place. So down we went, and spend a very enjoyable hour or two strolling along about a kilometre of a wide city street, full of food stalls, amplified music, a fashion parade and a micro fun-air for kids

SO WHAT DO I THINK ABOUT CUBA
Only Old Havana and Trinidad are interesting and pleasant enough places to be. If you really want go to the beach and you’re going to Trinidad, spend a couple of days on the Ancon Peninsula, otherwise spend a couple of days at Varadero – the beach is great but there’s nothing else there. Don’t bother with Playa Giron, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba, Gauntanamo, Baracoa and Maguana. If you hire a car, make sure you get one with a full-size spare tyre because the distance between major centres is much more than the recommended mileage for the mini-spares that a lot of the small cars carry

To be honest, I wouldn’t bother with Cuba at all until the embargo is over

But, the people are really wonderful especially as they have to put up with so much crap from the Cuban government

Posted by kforge 07:29 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

BACANAO

Baracoa to Guantanamo to Bacanao

overcast 27 °C

Friday December 20
So Friday dawned with the prospect of climbing over a 1,900 metre mountain range on a dodgy tyre and a mini-spare that should only be used for 50 km or so. The staff again were great and managed to contact the local rental guy again who promised to come soon with his mechanic – they did, checked the tyre and thought it might be OK, said they would call Guantanamo office (so we could at least swap the tyre there) and then made sure the pressure in the spare was correct. And off we went with a quick stop on the edge of town for some petrol ($1.40/litre), and who should we bump into but the tyre-repairer from Thursday; and he had the cheek to try it on by holding his ear next to another tyre and saying it had a puncture!

The drive really was spectacular. We stopped every ½ hour to check the tyre and kept to 40 kph but actually couldn’t have done much more than this because of all the tight bends. 1 ½ hours later we hit the coast and continued slowly along for another 1 ½ hours to the rental office at the Guantanamo Hotel. No-one had called them about the tyre but the manager said his mechanic was just 2 km away and he’d sort it out if we would like to wait in the hotel’s café. An hour later, he had not reappeared and the hotel had no way of contacting him as the rental agency is not actually part of the hotel. Eventually, I discovered that the hotel manager knew where the mechanic was and asked if he could call a taxi to take me there. On arrival at the large Transtur depot, I could see the car hoisted and 2 new tyres on the rear wheels just lying on the ground with several mechanics just standing around having a chat. After a short exchange of opinions, the manager got a mechanic to put the wheels back on and we were heading back to the hotel and Jeni. They may have been about to do this before I arrived but who knows

We had a fast run back towards Santiago and decided to head done the Bacanao coast, just to the east of the city. A couple of days ago, the customer service woman in the Hotel Melia had suggested the Hotel Los Corales as a good place to relax on the beach. We could spend 2 days there before flying out on Monday. As we drove along the pretty coast road, we looked for other hotels – Siboney Beach is a grubby little place and pretty much everything else along the coast was derelict, closed or empty. On the basis that we saw a few people in the gigantic Hotel Costa Morena, we checked in – the $55/night for room and all food and drink should have sounded the warning bells but there was really no other choice. It was truly awful and won the prize for the worst food in Cuba. And, there were a couple of small package groups from Canada staying there for a week or so. How desperate must you be to get out of Canada in winter to come here on holiday?

By the way, every "all-inclusive" resort in Cuba makes you wear an wristband for the duration of your sentence

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Posted by kforge 07:11 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

BARACOA

Santiago to Baracoa to Maguana Beach

sunny 28 °C

Wednesday December 18
After the huge bus trip a couple of days ago, we didn’t fancy another 6-hour journey down to Baracoa, so we paid $95/day for a Kia Picanto rental car for 5 days in the hope that we could stop whenever we wanted and see a few areas that are almost impossible to get to without a car – what a terrible decision this turned out to be (more later). Jeni keeps saying one day we’ll laugh about this, but she was crying as she said it

The day started well enough; the country east of Santiago is definitely the best we’ve seen. The drive to Guatanamo was through glorious, rolling green valleys but then changed drastically to an almost desert landscape as we hit the south coast for 30 or so kilometres. From Cajobabo to Baracoa (about 60 km) we were driving across the Sierra Maestra mountain range (here called the Cuchillas de Baracoa) which rises to 1,900 metres at Alto de Cotilla. The road is called La Farola and is a serious piece of engineering, started by the Batista regime but stopped when he refused to pay a fair wage to the workers – work began again the 1960s under Castro. The drive is truly magnificent with spectacular views all the way and while it is a very high road, there are no really bad “drop-offs” – I was able to drive ¾ of the way there and all the way coming back (for those of you who know of my mountain road “phobia”)

We were about 5 km from Baracoa when our problems began. It was just a puncture, so I started to undo the wheel-nuts and jack up the car with the help of an old bloke who just joined in (and refused to take a cent afterwards). When I went into the boot for the spare tyre, I suddenly realised what I’d find – a mini-spare! Anyway, not really an issue as we’d get the repair done in Baracoa and swap the tyres back. Baracoa is yet another hell-hole, with no proper garages – so we got the tyre fixed by a side-street mechanic. He did a good job on what turned out to be a very old and dangerous tyre but it cost us $50 and took nearly 1 ½ hours – he had us over a barrel

And so just as a test, we headed out of town towards Villa Maguana on what can only be described as one of the worst roads I’ve driven on (even worse than the Byron Hinterland roads). It was a pretty stupid thing to do but at least it would test the tyre as it was unlikely we would be able to get it replaced before heading back over the mountains. It took about 45 minutes to do the 22 km to reach Maguana Beach and we checked into the Villa just as the sun was setting. It’s a reasonably pleasant development of 16 timber cabins on a tiny, black beach but just not worth the effort in getting there – 4 other rooms were occupied

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Thursday December 19
If you’re thinking of going to Maguana, just don’t do it and definitely don’t do it in the rain, we only just made it back to Baracoa and that was after just a couple of hours of rain that night. But it did prove that the tyre could hold up

And so we checked in to Hotel El Castillo – it’s a converted fort and there are still ramparts just next to the excellent pool where there are spectacular views across the harbour, the ocean and the surrounding mountains. There were about 10 people staying in this 100-room hotel – maybe potential tourists have realised that apart from Havana (and maybe Trinidad), Cuba is not a very interesting place and just not worth the substantial effort required to even have a mediocre time

From the hotel, the excellent staff called the rental people in Santiago and Baracoa and Guantanamo to find out if we could get a replacement tyre or wheel before heading back over the mountains. Promises were made but no-one showed up

And in the evening, Jeni was actually brought to tears by the terrible menu and the fact that we would once again be the only people eating in the restaurant. That evening we decided to cut our losses and head back to the Santiago de Cuba area

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Posted by kforge 06:47 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

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