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Viva Cuba libre

CUBA | Sunday, 17 March 2013 | Views [3533]


Don't know much about Belize!
A small country on the Carribean, stuck between Mexico and Guatemala. We do the border crossing after leaving Flores, Guatemala into Belize. A simple, non eventful crossing with no hassles. A bus trip from the border brings us to the capital, Belize City.  Our time is limited in this new country, so we choose to head straight out to Caye Caulker, a layback island set in the beautiful Carribean. The boat trip only takes about 45 mins from  Belize City. When we step off the jetty we are welcomed by a an old local named Bobby. With scruffy dreadlocks, dirty clothes and only a few teeth left in his mouth, Bobby shows us a cheap place to stay. He in turn picks up his commission for the new customers he brings to the guesthouse. Of course he offers us ganga and cocaine, which we kindly decline. He finds another customer pretty soon after.  Belize is unique. African descendants with Rastafarian heritage bring their special touch to the place. Wherever you walk around Caye Caulker some black dude calls out to you "talk to me...talk to me". They all have one common goal and that  is to sell you something! Our 6 days are lazy days. Each afternoon  we gravitate to the Split. After a huge hurricane in 1961, the island was virtually sliced in two, leaving a 50 metre wide channel affectionately named the Split. Today, reggae music thumps out from the thatched roof bar as sun drenched locals and travellers drink Beliken beer from buckets of ice. The water is a crystal clear aqua colour. Life seems too simple here! Lots of North Americans come here for an early retirement. Not such a bad choice, but the island is too small for me. No grass, no trees, too many mangroves. 
We leave Belize, and make our way up through Mexico to Cancun. This is where we farewell Ryan,  as he heads back to Oz to continue his uni studies and do the normal things a 19 year old does. As with all our kids, it has been a joy and privilege to spend time with him  in Central America. Fun times and fabulous memories. Georgia also heads home. It has been a pleasure to watch her grow and enjoy the travel adventures we all shared. She has become a candidate for 'Cheapstake Tours' traveller of the year! 
So, it is now just Leeanne and I as we begin the next exciting chapter in our travels. Cuba it is! 
After much research on entry requirements, paperwork, etc, we jump on a short flight  from Cancun-Mexico to Havana-Cuba. Currency exchange ( Cuba has 2 types of currencies...CUC for tourists and CUP for locals. We plan on using both and as much of the local peso as possible as it is worth about 1/25 (yep 25) the value of the Cuban Convertible. Little English will be spoken so we need to keep up with our Spanish, and of course we need to be on our guard, as security is paramount in this part of the world. We are excited to witness the sights of such a unique land. A land they say is almost 'stuck in time'. Cuba....here we come!
Bloody hell! After 2 days in Havana - Cuba, I really don't know where to start. First thing you notice when stepping out of the airport are the cars. I mean most cars are pre 1960 classics. Old Dodges, Pontiacs, Chevvies, Fords, Lincolns, plus lots of smaller European beauties. I've never been a car fanatic, but this place is made for old 'revheads'. They are used as taxis too, they are everywhere. You feel like you are on the set of some 1950's movie..maybe "Happy Days"!
After our first half hour in the country we stop counting the classic old cars and arrive at our accommodation....a typical Casa particular, which is basically a home stay. We have 3 nights with Rosa and her sausage dog Chichi, various friends, neighbours and other guests. Breakfast  is included, plus lots of valuable information needed to tackle the streets of Havana. Lots of walking and navigating our way through the city is relatively easy. There is so much to look at, listen to, and watch out for, that our senses become overloaded at times. The buildings and architecture are astounding to say the least. Intermingled amongst the magnificent stonework, wrought iron and cobblestone streets are vibrant colours and vibrant people. The city is alive and constantly moving. Live music resonates around every corner, somebody will try to talk to you and offer you something. Beggars are common. As a tourist, it is difficult to hide. The local touts spot you a mile away, and will do what they can to get a few pesos out of you. Peso Cigars are a popular black market item but we are warned the street brand are often made from rubbish. 
Each morning as we hit the streets we are still surprised to see all the old cars. We explore the old city with its amazing plazas, filled with European churches and buildings but punctuated by music wherever we go. We visit the Museum de la Revolucion which is housed in the former palace, the Capitolo is a copy of the Washington Capital building. Many forts protect the harbour and an 8 km boardwalk called the  Malceyon follows the coast. 
We eat peso  pizzas, a whole pizza for 40cents, peso ice cream and chat to the Pizza guy who earns more making pizza than as an Engineer. His wife is a doctor and can only earn around $ 25 per month so she stays home with their baby instead. That's socialism for you!
After 3 nights we hop on a bus and head for Venales, a small town at the top end of Cuba, known for tobacco plantations and Mogotes ( limestone karste) mountain landscapes. We are met at the bus stop by Gloria, our host for 2 nights. We walk 3 blocks up to her house to find the pinkest house in the street. Everything is pink. The walls are painted pink, the curtains are pink, bed covers are pink. Even a pink frilly fluffy thing over the toilet seat! My grandmother would've loved it! Gloria serves us great home cooked meals complete with lobster. We spend 2 CUC ($2)to watch a salsa band complete with dance show. We spend the day wandering through the Mogotes enjoying the magnificent vistas and watching cigars being rolled.  I get lucky, and am invited to go and watch the cock fighting. Leeanne declines the offer, so I venture out into the hills and down a dirt track through the bush leading to a hidden enclosure. The fighting ring is about 10 m in diameter, with a small netted fence. Timber seating forms the circular arena. The sound is deafening, as about 200 local men scream and yell as the cocks go at it. I've never experienced anything quite like this. The smell of cigars, rum being sculled, pesos changing hands and lots of blood in the ring. One cock fight finished in a draw after lasting over 30 mins. They called all bets off, as both the cocks were blind after losing their eyes in the battle. Barbaric to most, but entertainment and sport to these people. They will be back again next Saturday for their weekly adrenalin rush!
8 hours on a bus and we arrive in Cienqfuegos. Plenty of Casa particulares (home stays) to choose from costing about $20-25/ room. The homes are old and beautifully decorated with antique furniture and mosaic tiles. Lolita, the owner, makes a huge breakfast for $4 each. We try to save a few bucks each night eating on the street for 40cents each ( we use local pesos). The choice is pizza or pizza! We are starting to crave a feed of vegetables. We figure we can only live on pizza, ice cream and rum for so long. (The 3 cheapest items in Cuba, finding $1 mojitos was a highlight of Leeanne's day). 2 days is good in Cienfuegos. An easy place to walk around with some pretty good views across the bay. The town has a strong french influence with neo classical architecture and an odd morrocan influenced palace thrown in for good measure. Next time we come, should bring the Coggo's sport trophies and open our own museum. Wouldn't be hard to beat the one on show here. Wish I had a trophy for fencing, though!
Now for the apple of Cubas eye, Trinidad. Just when we thought we'd seen so many wonderful buildings we arrive in this gem. It is described as the town that went to sleep in 1850 and never woke up. One of the fantastic side effects of the Castro years has been the preservation  of whole towns of magnificent buildings. The cobbled streets are charming and fantastic music is around every corner. This time Olga meats us at the bus and we finally barter the room price. We agree on $20 CUC and discounted lobster dinner again. An afternoon walk around the town and a mojitos or 10 with our new Italian friends who are also staying at the Casa. No English is spoken but once again lots of laughter, rum, cigars and of coarse Lobsters are had. We decide to hit the town around 11pm which is alive with salsa bands and dancers. We run into friends we met in Vinales and have a great night.
Trying to get a train in Trinidad to the famous Los valleys des ignacious is hilarious. Go to the train siding around 9. For a 9.30 train. It may or may not run. No not running today.......mañana (tomorrow) we spoke to one girl who had tried three days in a row. Oh well, mañana.  And guess what? We rock up to the train platform on our last day in Trinidad and see about 20 people waiting. Yes, train today! Pay our $10 and jump on for a great day up through the valley behind the town, travelling through scrubby countryside and into the famous sugar cane fields. History tells us that wealthy land owners once grew lots of cane here. One owner built a 45 metre tower from which he kept a watch over his sugar empire, making sure his African slaves worked hard. This was the start of the Cuban rum industry. Still today, 90% of rum produced is exported. I'm glad they keep some here! What would we put in our coke? The women are selling beautiful homemade lace tablecloths  and hankys. They are all happy to chat and are not hard sell at all. 
The train stops later for a typical hacienda lunch break. 'Cheapstake Tours' has already packed some left over bread from breakfast and we buy a tomato from a local seller. He brings out his trusty 12" knife and slices it perfectly for us. While the rest of the train tourists eat typico Cubana chicken, rice, frijoles and fried banana, Leeanne and I walk down the track and meet a local family. We are escorted over an old rail bridge to their humble  house. They show us around their finca (farm), give us wonderful tomatoes and we sit in rocking chairs sharing stories ( in Spanish, of course) showing family photos, ours on the i-phone, theirs are old worn out prints, and drink home grown coffee.  Proud people, and so hospitable. As we say 'adios', Leeanne and I look at each other, and know we just experienced another special moment. 
Cuba is a country locked in time. Traditional values and ways haven't changed much for the past 50 years. Fidel Castro and the revolution movement is still strong with many Cubans. Not so with others.  We are constantly reminded of the differences in people's lives here compared to ours. There is little rubbish around....because there is little packaging. No advertising, therefore few products to buy. Trade embargoes have made Cuba self reliant and more self sustainable than most countries we all know. Recycling is a necessity, rather than community awareness generated. Socialism, government control, money is hard to come by. The internet is almost non- existent. I often wonder what Cuba will be like the day communication ( as we know it) is available to these people. Rapid changes on the horizon...one day! As for a foreign traveller, Cuba is a fascinating destination. A place our parents and grandparents would love, heaps of nostalgia! We took a chance in coming here, a chance we wouldn't change for quids! Viva Cuba!
We check our trusty Lonely Planet guide and decide to go to Las Tunas. A bit out of the way, but only about 8 hrs on the bus through the Cuban countryside, most of which is flat and scrubby. It's Saturday night, rodeo night. Bummer! No rodeo this week...raining and cold. We keep moving down the island to Santiago de Cuba. We expect to get some action here as it is famous for music, revolution history, and hustlers. 
We have been staying in Casa Particulares in Cuba. This is a wonderfully unique way for average people to grab a few tourist dollars and maybe make a little money. With the wonderful old homes, many filled with antiques we have found ourselves in a little network passed on from one Casa to the next. It is wonderful to get off the bus and have someone waiting with your name on a sign, possibly a horse and cart and usually a cold welcome drink. They often only let one or two rooms and we have found them clean, very friendly and so helpful. When we arrive in Santiago there is a few moments of panic as no one is waiting and the touts are ferocious. We hang back a little and sure enough within five minutes someone is asking if we are Paul and Katerina (close enough) ? Bingo...... Of to a beautiful colonial house that was built in 1850. The Casa owner's family were in rum and cigars before the revolution. All factories and businesses were taken over by the government. The homes still have their original furnishings and amazing antique dinner services, silverware and glassware. 
The President of Venuezuala just died. 5.03.2013. Connections between the two countries are close. No music in town tonight, everything quiet. Respect is shown indicated by flags at half mast, no festivities for a couple of days we are told. The Cubans are a little anxious as the Chauvez sold Cuba discounted oil in return for Doctors and Medical aid. We had planned on seeing some famous Cuban musicians at work here but that doesn't happen, but we manage to mix it with the locals a bit. We jump on a horse drawn taxi (holds maybe 12 people) and sit with a bunch of men, when one guy brings out a small black board and sits it on his lap, upon which he produces his 3 plastics bottle caps, one has a bean seed under it. As we bounce along the road...clip, clop, clip, clop.....the guessing game begins. He quickly moves each cap around the board trying to confuse us. Pesos start to appear amongst the other passengers, they bet with this guy and win lots. That's when we are invited to bet. It looks too easy!  We are  being set up big time! Thankfully, our well travelled instincts kick in and we decline to throw any pesos his way,  jump off and have another laugh! The rest of the day is spent at probably one of the best forts I've seen. To protect the bay from pirates of the Carribean stands a 500 year old fort complete with cannons, gaols, lots of 10kg  cannon balls, and an awesome view. If only we had bought the  camera.....we do have one, but local thieves have made us a bit paranoid, so we left all valuables at our Casa today....even hid some emergency pesos in my sock!
Our last destination in Cuba is Baracoa. We plan our trip well and buy our bus tickets the day before, as we are told the bus can fill quickly. We get the bus station the next morning to find its closed. In fact, half the city is closed. The government just decided to call the people and march the streets in respect of the death of the Venuezualan president. We are told the bus is leaving from the train station. Shit.....2 km away, bus leaves in 10 mins! Amid the road closures, police stopping traffic and general chaos, we jump in a tricycle taxi. The poor bugger pedalling went flat out and we got to the bus just as it was leaving. the bicitaxi driver would only take the regular 1 peso each. 5 hours down the island we arrive in Baracoa, after driving through some rugged mountains and passing some deserted coastline, including the infamous US Naval Base and torture playground at Guantanamo  Bay.
Baracoa is our home for the next 5 days. We stay with our new hosts, Miriam and Louis at their humble home a stones throw from the Atlantic. (Louis has a classic Barney Rubble laugh)They don't speak English, but that's OK, we are so used to that by now and managing with basic Spanish. We are spoilt rotten with fish, lobster and crab at our Casa. Breakfast is exactly the same everyday.....omelet, pineapple, bread rolls, hot chocolate and coffee. 
Baracoa has turned out to be a perfect town to relax. We do manage to burn up some energy and do some trekking up to a viewpoint at the end of the beach. Our guide, named Junior, shows us his grandfathers coconut and cacao plantation which nestles below a unique cliff platform walk. Limestone formations with fossils galore high up above sea level indicate an age millions of years ago when the ocean engulfed this land. Ancient Indians have left remnants of their primitive civilisation. We walk on handmade rock walls, and see tools and broken pottery around. As we walk we eat directly from the plants, at least 8 different types of fruit. No dying of thirst out here, fresh coconut water goes down well! 
A bit of excitement before we leave town. A huge swell has just hit the coast creating some giant waves crashing over the boardwalk (Malecon). The local boys hide behind the wall and dodge the monsters as they crash over their heads.I watched a tourist get a little too close to take a photo. He disappeared inside a mass of white water and was left floating down the street. Hat gone, thongs missing, sunnies lost. He's still looking for his camera! 
We leave Baracoa and prepare for a mammoth bus trip all the way up through Cuba back to Havana. Over 20 hours.....might need some medicinal fluids, namely Havana Club Rum!
We spend our last 2 nights in Havana, and decide to stay in the Vedado district, famed for entertainment. As we walk the streets at night we know everything kicks off late. Trying to find food outlets isn't that easy here, especially the cheap ones that accept local pesos. Pizza it is......again! Don't come to Cuba if you long for culinary delights. The food is so basic and repetitive. We reflect on our last 23 days in Cuba, and still scratch our heads in wonder at this country. It really is locked in time. Some things make perfect sense and others just seem ridiculous. Food queues and rationing still operate. The roads in most of the country are pretty much deserted. Few people own cars or motorbikes. Can't afford them. They ride lots of bicycles or get around on horse carts or trucks.A number of years ago, just before the Chinese all wanted cars, Cuba bought 500,000 bicycles from them. I bet they got them cheap! The country is still under an American trade embargo so imported products are minimal. Cubans have no choice in consumer products. Supermarkets, as we all know them, don't exist. One brand of toothpaste says it all! Yet material goods free and almost non existent internet we would genuinely say the Cuban people are very happy. they love their family time and music and sport form the backbone of the culture. we have never seen a country that collectively has such talented musicians and dancers and they adore it if you embrace the music. it sometimes gets a bit tiring being asked for a handout but hey this is how they make their living. 10 piece bands and dancers in nearly every town at the Casa de Trova or Casa de Musica is an absolute treat. at first it is intimidating watching amazing salsa and rhumba dancers especially for the males but we soon develop our own unique hahah style. the more we drink the better we are. often the bottle of rum is being passed around as are the dancers. dancing is for pure joy. 
As we sit at the airport, bound for Mexico and back to the future, we have spent every Cuban peso in our pockets(they are no good elsewhere), we say adios and gracious. We are still a bit confused at what we have just witnessed over the past 3 weeks or so and would no sooner like to comment on the political situation other than to say like every country we have visited there are good and bad points. Fidels revolution certainly has helped the poor with a huge concentration of educated people with great health care but perhaps an under utilised workforce with little incentive. Socially, Cubans help each other, there is relatively little crime, they have great social ethics giving their time freely to nations worse off than them. Cuban doctors are in many African and South American countries volunteering their time for the same pitiful pay they get at home. You can even do your medical degree in Cuba if you promise to use it for the greater good. They must turn out pretty good as the US takes many Cuban doctors and their standards are among the strictest in the world. 
One day, when we return, Cuba will still be the same. What's the bet!     15.03.13
Average daily budget for 2 people $70.00 includes food/transport/ accom/ visa/entertainment and a few pressies. 

Tags: baracoa, belize, che, cienfuegos, cuba, havana, santiago de cuba, trinidad, vinales



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