The owner of our casa would barely talk about anything other than Yumurí. The Lonely Planet recommended another river-beach but since they’d already falsely raised expectations with their ‘colonial town’ description we thought we may as well hang the consequences and go with the local knowledge. We agreed to go. While we were at it, we also agreed to Cuban-style salsa lessons after dinner. Wild.
At this point it emerged that the river was more than 20km from the casa. We could get there by horse and cart or by motorbike (10-15 CUC), and the motorbike would have a side-car.
Riding in a side-car for your first time is a wonderful experience. Aside from feeling like Wallace and Gromit, it’s like being in an especially rickety convertible. When the side-car in question is also approximately the age of your parents, the feeling of exhilaration is only intensified. Misgivings soared through our heads as we roared through the countryside.
Yumurí was worth the half hour of intense fear. When we arrived we were shown to a boat and rowed up the river to a tiny beach. It was so isolated that, even in June, we were the only tourists around for the vast majority of our time there. We spent a couple of hours splashing around and looking at the wind turbine tucked away there. It was really interesting to see that Cuba is getting in to green energy and to hear more about the vast nature reserve there.
Eventually it was time to paddle back to the motorbike and head to our first true Caribbean beach.
Side note: Motor bike exhausts get VERY HOT and are not covered by heat shields. That’s right, the huge metal thing that lurks, completely exposed, right where you naturally put you leg, will burn you. We learnt this the hard way.
Day 2 in Baracoa didn’t start much better. We woke up to this, dripping with sweat and dreading the thought of the bus journey back to Santiago.
Breakfast changed our minds.
The really wonderful thing about Baracoa is that because it is so remote it has it’s own cuisine. Of this, the highlight was certainly the hot chocolate. After one sip each we were planning how to take some home. After two we were planning to live there forever.
We decided to stay.
If we thought the station in Havana was hectic, it was nothing compared to what we walked into in Santiago de Cuba.
The waiting room was packed full of men and women with casas shouting ’15 CUC!’ and ‘air con!’ trying to pick up tourists. As we queued to pick up our bags we were approached by a man who said he had relatives with a casa in Baracoa who could pick us up from the station. Taking a leap of faith we asked the price, gave him our names, made sure we could go and have a look at the casa before agreeing to stay there.
Having barely slept on the bus, we were in desperate need of coffee. We asked where it could be bought and explained we had 15 minutes until our next bus, expecting to be directed to a station cafe. Instead, the man signalled to a friend who lead us out of the station and past the gaggle of men blocking the doorway shouting ‘taxi!’ A five minute walk up a main road brought us to an old woman sitting behind a rickety wooden table with a thermos and a couple of chipped mugs.
It was here, by the side of the road, we had what was probably our best cup of coffee of the whole trip for a peso (moneda nacional!) each. That’s 4p.
We were a little more awake for the walk back. This meant we were suddenly aware of the poverty hidden down the side streets and the suspicious looking people. We were suddenly very conscious of our expensive gadgets and the money hidden in sweaty money belts against our stomachs. For the only time in Cuba, we didn’t feel safe.
Our sense of unease was only compounded by a searing heat and asphyxiating air pollution from the traffic. We strode back to the station as fast as we could. Not knowing the protocol, we didn’t tip the man who took us to get coffee – but we presumed he must get a cut of casa profits since he didn’t seem to be expecting one.
Gritty, urban Santiago did not seem to have a welcoming atmosphere to tourists and we decided not to stay overnight on the way back from Baracoa. It’s meant to be the only unsafe city in Cuba.
Maybe the 1 million police officers in Cuba (pop.11 million) were as scared of Santiago as we were.