Side-cars and Side-notes

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.

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Beached in Baracoa

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.

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Baracoa

The second leg of the journey from Santiago to Baracoa was long and winding, but gave us the chance to appreciate some absolutely beautiful scenery – mountains, jungle and the sea – all in five hours.

Or we would have done if we hadn’t been feeling so sick from the lime biscuits.

But as we pulled into the town, our hearts began to sink. Cuba’s first colonial town, the guidebook had said. Yet this seemed to be just a backwater cluster of small concrete homes. Met by our casa owner, Arquímede, at the station, we reluctantly piled into a bici-taxi (paying 1 CUC at the end of the ride to his house – number 87 at the corner of Rúbert Lopez and Limbano Sanchez) and inspected the room which had a private exit, air con and bathroom and looked decent – though we soon found on the rest of our trip that this was by no means the best place or the best deal we could get (they didn’t change the sheets or provide towels for one). Agreeing on 15 CUC per night (prices are always per room not per person), plus 2 per person for breakfast and 4 per person for dinner, we showered – and deciding to give the place a second chance, ventured out after a short rest.

Heading to the beach in search of some much needed tranquility, we immediately had to fob off a man trying to sell us artisanal crafts. Saying we’d stop by later, we then had our second bad surprise – the sand was far from the pristine white we had expected. In fact, more like black sand, the beach was also littered with rubbish. Moreover, no more than two minutes after we had sat down, we were approached by another man selling jewellery (who also professed to be a licensed masseur).

Actually a nice chap, we purchased a couple of necklaces and a bracelet (he also sold salad spoons and little wooden sculptures) for about 30 pesos (moneda nacional) which turned out to be the cheapest deal of the whole trip for souvenirs. Unfortunately no sooner had we done so, a second man with a mouth noticeably empty of teeth despite his young age (he looked about thirty) and bearing uncanny resemblance to a sloth approached us, offering his taxi services for trips to Playa Maguana and other spots on the tourist trail.

Our patience wearing thin, we made as rapid an exit back to our casa as possible – with him trailing behind us for much of the way – past the man we had previously evaded who had apparently been waiting for us on the Malecón with a disappointed and slightly creepy expression on his face.

We spent the rest of the evening making plans for our escape.

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Stopover in Santiago

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.

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The Fiesta Bus

Sometimes it’s important to go a bit wild.

With this in mind, we purchased a decent amount of Santiago rum (spanish: ron) – keen to sample an alternative to Havana Club –  and a less generous measure of mixer for dinner from the shops in the station. We also bought a packet of biscuits and sandwiches (a rather brittle and tasteless salad one for Elle from the café above the station and bread and dodgy looking but surprisingly tasty frozen sausage for Rosie from a shop across the street for locals where you have to pay in moneda nacional). We were ready to ride the Viazul.

It’s lucky Rosie speaks Spanish because the station was an absolute nightmare. We waited in various queues to try and buy tickets only to find out they were the wrong queue. Eventually we found ourselves at a desk waiting for a woman with false eyelashes so large we were surprised she could open her eyes to get off the phone to her friend and sell us tickets to the furthest reaches of Cuba: Santiago de Cuba.

Tickets purchased we headed over to the bag drop where we were lucky enough to befriend a Mexican and a Venezuelan of around our age. Ripe and ready for corruption.

Once aboard the bus it felt sensible to wait a few hours to crack open the Ron. A combination of fear that we’d be evicted in some slum on the route and common sense suggesting we should wait until most people were asleep fought against horrific jet-lag and student instincts. The rum was out by 8pm.

What followed was a glorious night of irresponsible behaviour and horror stricken visits to the bus’ toilet from where a really nasty smell was leeching out into the whole back of the bus (there was no light – necessitating acrobatics with a mobile phone held in our teeth). Plus one drunken text to a recent ex.

It’s a good thing it was fun because the journey lasted until 7am the next day (13 hours).

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A Day in Old Havana

Our bus wouldn’t leave until the early evening so we booked a taxi to the station at the reception of our hotel and went off to explore Old Havana.

Part of the plan was to catch a flight to Isla de la Juventud on our way back from Baracoa. Having overcome our sheer terror regarding the concept of travelling in a Cuban plane we were really excited to experience the best snorkelling in the country as well as crocodile and turtle reserves. There is also a ferry that leaves from Batabanó, on the south coast below Havana, but it is a lengthy process to buy tickets – you can’t get them straight from the port, instead you have to get them in Havana first! – and then the journey can be subject to long delays. Unfortunately we soon found at the travel agency on Plaza de San Francisco that due to diving season, flights from José Marti were already full and so we had to abandon our plan to visit the island. We’ll book in advance next time around!

This freed up a little more time to really get our teeth into mainland Cuba.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering for a bit around Old Havana. Rosie was keen to get some cigars to smoke on the journey and we were lead by two men to a house where she bought a paper carton of five ‘Cohibas‘ (she wanted one) for 20CUC. Elle waited in the hallway with the cat muttering under her breath about safety and brutal murders of innocent tourists who would really like to graduate before they died after all the effort they’d put into university.

Needless to say we later realised the cigars bought from the dodgy guys in the flat were not the real thing.

Cohibas are the top quality cigars of Cuba, and are sold in cedar wood boxes for proper preservation. Getting one on its own in the city is pretty hard and you’re likely to be sold a fake – the airport on your way out is your best bet. Anyway, we brushed it off as a fun adventure – it was here we had our first experience of how men treat women in Cuba. Lots of raunchy comments, but never in a way that would make you afraid – it is clear they are joking. Also where going into a strangers house in London would be an absolute no-no, here even the scary looking surroundings (up some crumbling concrete stairs past a litter of rather diseased looking kittens and into a flat with a ragged cloth for a door) do not necessarily mean danger – although perhaps it still wasn’t the best idea and it is advisable to always exercise caution.

Continuing our ramble around the city, we met a friendly man and woman who we asked where we could get water and find a good spot to eat lunch. They took us to buy some and then lead us to a restaurant which they told us used to house the Buena Vista Social Club, citing the best cocktails in the city. These actually turned out to be more watered down than in the hotel and the prices clearly inflated for the tourists (a family-run paladar like the second and third floors of ‘Los Asturianitos’ on Paseo Martí before it hits Dragones or ‘El Chanchullero’ on Plaza del Cristo as recommended by Helen our friendly waitress at the Hotel Raquel would be much better value), the view from the balcony was lovely and we got chatting. The man was a quality control official at the cigar factory, and also a part time languages teacher and godfather to the woman’s – a musician who worked at Casa de la Música – son. We got them a couple of drinks each for their time, but it was clear these two were not trying to rip us off – Cubans can just be curious about life abroad (they called it ‘virtual tourism’) and get a free cocktail where they can. It was fascinating hearing about the free education in Cuba and the prevalence of medical degrees – apparently there’s a doctor for every eight people in Cuba. Wish our degrees had been free (or cheaper. We’re looking at you Nick Clegg).

After spending what we later found was equivalent to 3 months wages for a local person on average food they guided us back into the old city, past a fruit market where they gifted us a mango, helped us buy bread at a local shop and at Rosie’s request took us to a place where we could buy real cigars for her dad. Oh and they warned us about walking on the pavement – balconies can, and often do collapse onto peoples’ heads!

They also told us that a few days every couple of months workers at the cigar factory are allowed to purchase boxes of cigars at a discounted price and sell them from their homes for less than in the factory. These are called ‘colectivos’ and we were lucky to be in Havana on that day – Rosie got a box of 25 Cohiba robustos (real this time, you can tell from the licence seals on the boxes and from the colouration and smell of the cigars inside) for 100CUC; she checked at Frankfurt airport on her way home and the same box was on sale for 544 euros!

Bidding them goodbye, we headed back to the hotel to catch our taxi (a pre-agreed 10 CUC fare to the Viazul station which is around 3km out of central Havana) and begin our big adventure to Baracoa.

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The Best Laid Plans

We’d planned our holiday to be a glorious mix of the spontaneous and the planned. We’d read a guidebook and picked the key things to see and do but we also wanted to talk to the locals (ok, Rosie wanted to talk to the locals in Spanish. Elle wanted to have what they said translated for her) and do what they said was worth doing – only partially because of the lack of concrete information available on Cuba on the internet.

This meant we were not going to Varadero. Famed for it’s luxury resorts and supposedly the best white sand beaches in the country, it’s absolutely chocca with exactly the sort of people we love to hate. Instead we would travel the length and breadth of the country. We’d start with Baracoa in Guantánamo province and wind our way back over the following two weeks.

Clearly this was doomed to fail.

Our initial plan was to take the Trén Frances recommended by www.seat61.com down to Guantánamo and complete the rest of the journey by other means of transportation. We spent a lot of time trying to gather as much information on train timetables and routes as possible as we were keen to avoid the so-called Viazul tourist bus, although we knew we’d have to double check all of this information once actually there. The reaction of the friendly waitress and chef at dinner at Hotel Raquel, horror, warned us this plan may need alterations. Aside from the fact that going by train would be significantly slower than taking the bus (!), they warned us against constant disruption due to power cuts and other problems with the line, and the extreme lack of comfort even in the supposed first class carriages which puts them off – let alone tourists – so we resorted to plan B, the Viazul.

The Viazul to Baracoa via Santiago de Cuba left at 6pm. We had the next part of our journey planned!

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