A Travellerspoint blog

SANTIAGO DE CUBA

Trinidad to Santiago

sunny 30 °C

Monday December 16
We had decided a couple of days ago that we didn’t want to stop in Camaguey en-route to Santiago de Cuba. Unfortunately, this meant a 12-hour bus ride – and yes it was bad and made worse because, although it’s a tourist bus, they must have stopped about 20 or 30 times to drop off and pick up locals and made a 8-hour trip into 12, and the countryside is really not that interesting (most of Cuba isn’t). ViaAzul usually do these pick-ups but normally only once or twice – this one should not be called a tourist bus. And we only had one proper break at a park-like highway "canteen" just outside Sancti Spiritus

We eventually arrived at 8:30 pm and checked into, as it turned out, the grossly overrated Melia Santiago Hotel about 30 minutes later

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Tuesday December 17
What an unpleasant place Santiago is and not made any better by the fact that they have decided to close/renovate just about everything worth seeing in the old town. It’s just a big, dirty, uninteresting city - even if the “sights” were available. Fortunately we’d only booked 2 nights and that will be more than enough. And, like everywhere else in Cuba except for Havana, there are very few tourists about, especially in Santiago. By the way, the hotel seems to be a favourite location for creepy old men to bring their Cuban call-girls for a few days

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Posted by kforge 04:46 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

TRINIDAD DE CUBA

Cienfuegos to Trinidad

sunny 29 °C

Thursday December 12
We spent a lazy morning around the Casa and took off for the 12:45 bus from Cienfuegos to Trinidad de Cuba ($6 for 1 ½ hours) – it didn’t leave until 1:15pm and the ViaZul bus station is a really horrible place to spend even a few minutes

The arrival into Trinidad was a nightmare – for some reason they stopped the journey in a narrow street not far from the bus station and there were probably 50 Casa people and 50 passengers on the pavement, squashed between a house and the bus. The drivers were great and kept tight control of baggage until the receipt had been shown. Amongst all of this was Fiona, an old friend of Jeni’s from her Angus and Robertson days, who now lives in Trinidad and had come along to show us to our new home for 4 nights. Cubans are not allowed to have friends stay in their house unless they are registered as a Casa Particulare: any Cubans, not just foreigners who have residency. So, as she and her husband Osiel are still waiting for their Casa permit, we had to stay with friends of hers just a short walk away – simple!

After checking in to Hostal Magaly ($25/night), Fiona gave us a short tour around the main part of the old town before heading back to her house and allowing us to explore on our own in the evening. Like so often in Bali, there are loads of people around during the day and then virtually no-one in the restaurants in the evening

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Friday December 13
We did some exploring in the old town and then walked quite a way uphill (in the noon-day sun of course) to Hotel Las Cuevas, where for $2 you can use their huge swimming pool and pay for the odd drink and snack. The hotel is huge as well with lots of basic-looking concrete cabins scattered around 10s of hectares of grass and trees with view across the town to the sea 4 km away. We were there 3 hours and 5 other people used the pool area and we saw 3 other people down near reception – another state-run enterprise losing millions of dollars

In the evening, we walked to the edge of town where Fiona and Osiel are renovating a 100-year old farmhouse on a hectare of mango, banana, guava, avocado and pineapple trees. Fiona treated us to a lentil curry with yucca, malanga and avocado; we’ve not been able to get yucca at any restaurant so far, rice and beans but no yucca

And just before dinner, Osiel gave us a personal performance of his Bolero and Son music on guitar and voice. He studied music at university and used play with all the bands in Trinidad and even has some of his own songs played on radio (no royalties of course)

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Saturday December 14
An early start in order to catch the Valle de los Ingenios train ($10 for 4 ½ hours) from Trinidad station to Manaca-Inzaga where there is an old sugar plantation complete with a 45-metre tower that was used for keeping an eye on the slaves. From there, a very short ride brought us to an old homestead with a state-run restaurant which as usual was bloody hopeless. The train then hurtled back to Trinidad at 25 km/hour (20 on the way up) – it should have been a 1916 steam engine but as it was out of service, we had to make do with a very old, Russian diesel engine (it looked like it had been used in the salt mines!). A very good excursion

The evening was spent at the Casa de Musica, a large outdoor venue where many of the local bands play, listening to Rumba and Danzon. And here is a ridiculous thing; it is almost impossible to get any current information on anything in Cuba and it seems that extends to Cubans as well – while we were listening to the music, Osiel nipped next door to see who was playing at the Casa de Trove and through a friend of a friend found out that one of the biggest bands in Cuba was playing that moment in the stadium just minutes away. He’s a musician, his friends are musicians and they had only just found out

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Sunday December 15
Fiona picked us up in a taxi (a Lada) and we headed down to the coast to La Boca, just 4 km from town and then onto Playa Ancon about another 10 km along the peninsula. The beach at La Boca was rocky but there were a couple of really good-looking hotels/casas right on the beach and I’m sure a couple of days there would be great fun. Playa Ancon has 2 very large hotels in the Russian style but the beach is really good with fine white sand and very calm water for swimming. And for a $1 each (please note Nice and Waikiki beaches), we hired loungers and sat beneath a thatched umbrella between swims. There were some Cubans having fun in the sun, but Fiona explained that in the summer months there would be many more and as it was now officially winter, most Cubans would find it too cold for swimming. And it was at least 35 Celsius and 24C in the sea

In the afternoon, Jeni and I had another walk around the old, cobbled area of town and yet again, a place we wanted to visit was closed for renovations (it’s Trinidad’s 500th anniversary in January) – the Museo Romantico. So instead we visited the Museo Historia Municipal and apart from a fine building and the odd item of interest, it’s pretty disappointing, just like almost every other museum in Cuba – loads of people we have met have degrees (mainly engineering) but obviously something as useful as curation is not being taught anywhere

Guide books had been telling us that Santiago de Cuba can get very busy, so we thought we’d better try booking a hotel as the bus was due to get in at 8pm. A lovely lady at Cubatur managed to get us a special 2-night deal for $93/night instead of the usual $140/night at the Melia Santiago

Our final night in Trinidad was spent with Fiona and Osiel at her friend Maritza’s Casa, having a wonderful vegetarian feast prepared by Maritza

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Posted by kforge 04:07 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

CIENFUEGOS

Varadero to Cienfuegos and Punta Gorda

sunny 30 °C

Tuesday December 10
As lovely as the beach is, Varadero is a rather sterile strip-town; OK if you come from winter in Norway for a week’s sunbathing but there’s just about nothing else to do. So, we left –taking a ViaZul bus to Cienfuegos ($16 for 4 ½ hours). The trip south is through very rural country with little of interest, although there are the villages of Australia and Central Australia, the latter being a strategic location for the Cubans during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. I haven’t found out yet how these villages got their names. The final part of the trip ran alongside the Bahia de Cochinos where there are a couple of sad-looking resorts; most of the other Viazul buses take the inland route. We were dropped off at the decidedly dodgy-looking Cienfuegos Bus Terminal at 6pm and took a taxi to the Hotel La Union in the middle of the old town (the Rough Guide says it is a 15-minute walk, but I’d say it would be about 30 minutes and it’s not the sort of area you want to be in at night). We had made a tentative booking at this $143/night hotel but after just a couple of minutes, decided it was a complete shambles – the internet wasn’t working, the lift wasn’t working and their supposedly glorious patio was in darkness – if I’m paying $70/night, maybe I’d put up with this in Cuba but not at this inflated price.

A taxi took us to our 2nd choice in Punta Gorda, a sliver of a peninsula just a few kms away and we were lucky enough to find a room at the wonderful Villa Lagarto, right on the water’s edge ($40/night). It’s officially a Casa Particulare but really it’s a small hotel these days

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Wednesday December 11
We were strolling down the road that our Casa was in, checking other Casas to find out if any of them had fans instead of air-conditioning – in the 2nd one, we walked around the back to ask the owner and Jeni’s friend Gabe from Ubud was sitting there having breakfast! We knew she was in Cuba at a conference and had been trying to contact her. We arranged to meet her and her daughter Ella and Ella’s friend Sparkle at the terrace bar of the Palacio Valle that evening

There were no Casas with fans to be found, so we returned to our place to book another night but they were full – then they suddenly suggested “stay at our neighbour’s house next door”. The room at Los Delfinas was basic ($25/night) but they managed to produce a fan for us

We took a bicitaxi into Cienfuegos old town ($5) and desperately tried to work out why we had bothered to come to this town. Yes, there are some pleasant enough old buildings around the Parque Jose Marti, but generally it’s a very ordinary town. Punta Gorda is a lovely place and has a very well-maintained park right at the end of the peninsula but is it worth coming all the way here for a very small area of interest?

In the evening, the views from the Palacio Valle where we met just Ella at 6pm, were tremendous – the town, the bay and Punta Gorda. We had a couple of drinks and listened to a very good band and then Ella informed us that she and Gabe had arranged a vegetarian feast at their new Casa just near the old one, and, you’ve guessed it, it was the one we were now staying at. The feast was excellent – thank you Gabe, Ella and Sparkle

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Posted by kforge 03:47 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

VARADERO

Havana to Varadero

sunny 28 °C

Monday December 9
The bus picked us up at 10:30, an hour late which apparently is pretty common. It was not really an issue as we were sitting in our adopted Hotel San Miguel after having breakfast there for the 5th morning in a row. The staff are really helpful and I would definitely recommend this place (although we didn’t see the bedrooms). We were a bit surprised when the bus stopped for a café break just 45 minutes down the highway but realised we had been the last pick-up and some people had been on the bus since 9 am! The ride along the north coast to Varadero is not particularly scenic and we arrived on time at 1 pm at the apartment hotel we had found in the Rough Guide to Cuba – there were no longer any apartments just an ugly “all-inclusive” package hotel. Fortunately the tourist office was nearby but unfortunately, as per most of Cuban tourist offices, they were useless and just directed us to the next hotel along, which was fully booked. So we picked another hotel from the guide, grabbed a taxi and headed a few hundred metres up the beach road. Hotel Los Delfinos had an absolute beach-front room for $130 for 1 all-inclusive night i.e. breakfast, lunch, dinner and a 24-hours bar. We weren’t expecting much in the way of vegetarian food but actually ate pretty well at all meals and even managed to slip a few Mojitos down. Alcohol was included in as part of the “all-inclusive”. And the beach (all 23 kms of it) is spectacular – white sand running into the impossibly turquoise sea of the Florida Straits

We had been told by several tourist offices and by several hotel tour agents, that Casa Partilculares were illegal in Varadero and that none existed - there are dozens, as we discovered after checking in and strolling around some of the streets! They all bear the government plaque and are completely legal

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Posted by kforge 03:33 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

HAVANA

Miami to Nassau to Havana

sunny 28 °C

Wednesday December 4
One bonus for staying at the St Michel Hotel is that it is only 4 miles from the airport. You drop the car off at a dedicated rental-car terminal and then catch the 3-minute mono-rail to the actual airport terminal. The Bahamasair check-in took ages as everybody was going to Havana (via Nassau) with 50-100 kgs of excess baggage for their families back in Cuba – mainly Cubans with non-USA passports as US citizens are still not allowed to travel to Cuba (unless you’re a missionary or some such nonsense). We were told that we didn’t have to get off the plane in Nassau; we could just wait the 50 minutes or so on-board. And so it was; our passports and visa money were collected and we spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Pedro, a Cuban with a Spanish passport who lives in Cuba but spends time with his son and daughter in Miami and Los Angeles

We were quickly through passport-control in Havana but then waited ages (in a very short queue) for Immigration to scan our bags. We were not asked for proof of medical insurance or for proof of an onward flight. Where we exited the terminal there were no signs for currency exchange – I had to fight my way back into another entrance in order to find it. And unfortunately we were delayed another hour because our pre-booked taxi driver had an “emergency”. However, he had left his wife Lauda at the airport to look after us and we had a very interesting conversation with her (a micro-biologist) before her husband Juan (an engineer) arrived and whisked us (if you can whisk in a Lada) into Havana

The “Casa Particular” we had booked ($70/night for 2 bedrooms) was 3 floors up in Cuba Street, only a minute’s walk to the where the ocean-side Malecon meets the bayside Avenida del Puerto. The view from the balcony is not quite on par with the Nice apartment but is tremendous. The apartment manager, Daniel (a sound-engineer), was waiting for us and we all spent an amusing hour or conversing in broken-English, broken-Spanish and sign-language until we had a rough idea of how everything worked. There was no information at the airport and none in the apartment and we were lucky that there was the Hostal San Miguel just 3 doors down who kindly gave us a map (Havana does not do tourism very well despite the large numbers of tourists that have been coming here for years – there are almost no brochures or decent maps, and the supposedly weekly tourist magazine/newspaper is nowhere to be found). Anyway, the apartment is in Habana Vieja and in the evening we had short stroll into the centre of the Old Town and ate (or tried to eat) a disgusting meal at the Europa Gastronomic restaurant. Also tried the local Bucanero beer - terrible

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Thursday December 5
There is apparently only 1 real supermarket in Havana Vieja and a long way from the apartment. And as the small local shops only sell 1 or 2 items each, we decided the best bet was to have breakfast each morning at the hotel next door ($7 for a substantial feed) and to eat at small restaurants in the evening (except the Europa)

After breakfast, we strolled down pedestrian-only Obispo Street to the tourist office. The staff were very friendly but they had virtually no information. So we headed across the nearby square to the Gran Teatro de La Habana, the home of the Cuban Ballet and somewhere that Jeni has wanted to see all of her life – it was closed for renovation (which means years) and they have not allocated another venue for the ballet. We then walked through horrendous traffic to get to the Hotel Saratoga which is one of only two (so far) hotels/businesses that have the internet ($10/hour and pretty slow)

It was now time for some culture, so we paid $8 to enter the Museo de la Revolucion – how they manage to make a revolution boring is beyond me but seriously don’t waste your money

We then paid $5 to enter the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (just the Cuban building) and it is a truly world-class gallery, both the building itself and the works of art. I was particularly taken by the work of Thomas Sanchez

Our evening meal was at La Barca – lots of excellent small dishes; olives, asparagus, Caprese salad with Gouda (they’d run out of mozzarella), spaghetti aioli and a pizza. I tried the local Cristal beer and this was as bad as Buccaneer. Afterwards, we went for drinks at the penthouse terrace of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, an old hang-out of Ernest Hemingway – drinks were surprisingly reasonable at $3 for a Mojito or a glass of red wine

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Friday December 6
We walked about 5km to the Hotel Nacional, the 1924 gem of Havana hotels. We took the Malecon as many guide books say it is a marvellous walk. Complete rubbish. The Malecon is between 4 and 6 lanes all the way along and it is extremely dangerous trying to cross it. The pavement on the seaward side has views of the sea but there is no access to the shore and no beaches. On the other side of the Malecon, there is the very occasional partially-restored building with unfortunate people trying to run restaurants and hotels but mostly it is pretty much derelict colonial houses and a dangerous, pot-holed pavement. Don’t waste your time, take a taxi or bicitaxi. The Hotel Nacional is a very luxurious old building set on a low mound just back from the seawall but apart lounging around the pool (again no beach access) and drinking coffee or Mojitos in the pleasant gardens, there’s really nothing to do and it’s miles from the Old Town. We took a taxi back, expensive at $7 but worth avoiding those pavements

After a very long siesta, we walked across to the bay-side promenade and took up residence in a small “locals” café right next to the seawall and had Beck’s beer, Mojitos and a very strange sautéed salad. It was a very good way to spend a few hours, watching the Habaneros have their Friday night fun on the prom

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Saturday December 7
We went back to the tourist office to book the “handy bus” to Varadero, a so-called “spectacular” beach area 3 hours east of Havana. The “handy bus” has only recently started operation – instead of having to slog over to the ViaAzul bus station, this bus picks you at your hotel (in our case, our adopted breakfast hotel) and for the same price ($11 for 2 ½ hours) drops you at a hotel in Varadero. The tourist office does not take credit cards

We had been told that the Hotel Parque Central also has internet, and so it does. We paid $8 for 1-hour of wi-fi and the speed was OK, however it has trouble sending and receiving email via Outlook or similar programs. Apparently this is quite common in Cuba, so if you are going there, get yourself a GMail account and get all your mail forwarded to it from your usual ISP before you arrive – then you won’t have this problem

We then walked through the southern part of Habana Vieja to the Plaza Vieja (where we were originally going to stay). It is a well-restored area with footpaths you can walk on and much less frenetic traffic and tourism. In the Plaza is the Factoria Plaza Vieja that brews its own beer, and very good beer too for only $2/pint

From there, we headed into the Plaza de Armas and paid $3 to visit the Museo de la Cuidad. It is a beautiful building but the first two floors are not that interesting. But don’t leave, as the 3rd floor has a spectacular collection of Majolica, Sevre, Baccarat crystal and Venetian mrrors as well as fascinating personal belongings of most of the Cuban freedom-fighters over the last two hundred years or so

In the evening we were back at La Barca restaurant and once again the food was excellent, and they had football on the TV! This really is a good place for vegetarians – they have some good options on their menu and are prepared to put together other suggestions you might have (about $30 for 2 with 2 drinks each). We tried to pay with my Virgin Visa card and the transaction was declined but as the manager said this often happens, we don’t know whether my card was really declined or whether their phone link wasn’t working properly

Our evening entertainment was provided by an ATM. Banks and ATMs are mobbed during the day so we thought we’d try using one at about 8pm in the main street called Obispo. There is a lot of conflicting information on the web about which cards you can or cannot use in Cuba, so for what its worth, here is my contribution. ANZ in Australia told me that my ANZ Visa Debit card that I normally use for ATM withdrawals around the word, would not work in Cuba, so issued me with an additional standard Access ATM card. This additional card did not work but my usual one did! The CUC100 (Cuban Convertible Currency) appeared on the receipt as CUC100 and as USD100 with a commission fee of $3.00 or 3%. Quite what I will eventually see on my bank statement is another matter

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Sunday December 8
We walked a couple of kilometres along the bay-side to the small ferry pier just past the Russian Orthodox Church. The ferry is not really used by tourists and in theory costs 5 local pesos each way (about ½ a cent). However it seems that tourists get charged $1 – fair enough. The ride is only 15 minutes and is not particularly interesting but we hoped to grab a taxi or something on the other side to take us into the Gran Parque Morro-Cabana where there are old forts and castles. However, there was no transport available and probably never is, as Casa Blanca around the ferry area is an extremely deprived neighbourhood. And, unfortunately, the walk up the hill to the park is very long and steep and in 30C we just didn’t fancy it. There is a nice little café on the seawall next to the pier and we spent an enjoyable ½ hour there and then another ½ hour watching the 1916 “Hershey” 2-carriage, decrepit electric train (he of chocolate fame) get ready to depart for Versalles near Matanzas, 3 hours and only 135 km away – the passengers were mainly locals but there were also a few hardy tourists on-board who had paid around $3 for the trip

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Posted by kforge 03:06 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

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