Do you know of any other fruit that would taste better than ripe, juicy mango straight from the tree? If there is one, I have never tried it before. There can be many descriptions of the month of May in Cuba – rainy season, off-season, crab migration season or – mango season! A good storm in a tropical country? Even better, you get to take some nice pictures of the clouds! Crabs? I don’t eat those, but they also contribute to good pictures! But mango is something that everyone loves. And there are plenty of those in Cuba – small, bright yellow, big & pink, and all very fragrant. Now Cuba will always remain in my memories as the land of the tasty mangoes.
The opportunity to go to Cuba came unexpectedly and I immediately said yes! To be honest, just before finding out about the trip, I was a bit sad that I have not had the chance to see the Real Cuba, as now with relationship between USA and Cuba improving, it’s all going to change. All over the news there were articles about how you must go now, still to be able to see old American (and Soviet) cars, see Cubans unspoiled by capitalism and enjoy socialism in all its varieties. But they say be careful what you wish for, as it just may come true, and it did for me!
In the beginning of May I went to Cuba, for a two week adventure, mostly consisting of exploring the famous Cuban culture, a little lounging on the beach and some diving. I wanted to see what Cuba is all about – seeing Havana, Las Terrazas, Vinales, Pinar Del Rio region, visiting Trinidad, diving in the Bay of Pigs and being lazy on the beaches of Varadero. For several reasons „the base” for this all was to be Varadero, a five star all-inclusive hotel, with several included excursions. I was laughing that it has been a while since I was an ordinary tourist and this was a way to revisit what my trips looked like 5- 7 years ago. Although I have heard a lot about the advantages of staying in Cuban rented apartments – casas particulares – this time it was not an option. But who knows, life may bring me to Cuba someday again, and then I will certainly try those too. For our own planned trips we used local drivers with their own cars, both old-timers and more modern ones. This time we could really sit back and enjoy, which was especially nice after long walks in the cities. And, you must take a ride in the old Cuban car!
Then and Now
Many think that Cuba is just single island-country in the Caribbean. It’s not true; in fact, it consists of one main island and several archipelagos. Since we only had two weeks, we used this time on the main island, but if you have more than that, be sure to visit the other island as well! I hear they are magnificent.
The history of Cuba started with Arawak speaking Taino Indians, who did not greet Christopher Columbus too warmheartedly in the 15th century. And not without a reason, as in 1514 Spanish conquered Indian tribes and established Havana. Just roughly forty years later there was almost nothing left of Indian people or their culture. All we have today are the words – Cuba, Havana, tobacco, canoe – and a few more, still existing even in the English language. The name „Cuba” translated from the local language, most likely means „where fertile land is abundant” or „great place” according to another source.
With the Spanish and the mass genocide of the locals, a new time begun in Cuba. In order to work on the sugarcane plantations, a large number of slaves were brought from Africa, making for one of the sources of diverse population today. Many Cubans still know from which Spanish or African parts their ancestors came from. The next two centuries in Cuba marked fights between the British and Spanish on who will rule over Cuba. With the abolishing of slave trade, Chinese workers are brought in. 19th century marked independence wars and in the end USA annexes Cuba. Although in 1902 USA supposedly gives the power to local Cuban government, locals call it the puppet era, as Cubans had no say in what was happening to their country. But because of this period in Cuban history, Cuba is what it is now. It was then when all the magnificent buildings were erected, the fancy villas and town houses. The time when the best of American cars found their way here. At this time Cuba was at its economic peak, having the 8th highest salary in industrial segment in the world. Although a third of population was still poor, Cuba was 5th most developed country in the Southern America. The difference between the classes grew, and so did dissatisfaction with what was happening to the country. In 1959 Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took over Cuba and the relationship with the USA went downhill up until now. In 1962 USA announced embargo and the placement of Soviet missiles only worsened the Cold War. Soviet Union supported Cuba during this time, especially financially, so when it collapsed, Cuba went into Period Especial. During this time people suffered extreme hunger, there were regular electricity blackouts, and the elite got most of the food. Uprisings where quickly suppressed. Local Cubans were forced to eat all they could find. They say that many of Havana zoo inhabitants disappeared during this time, and everything that was not guarded, was stolen.
Today Cubans say that they have a new best friend – USA. Soon the ferry connections with Florida will be renewed, all diplomatic and trade relationships repaired. Just recently USA announced that Cuba will no longer be on the list of countries supporting terrorism. It’s difficult to say what Cuba may have looked like a year or three ago, but I do get the feeling that this process begun a while ago and there is no way back. You still get to see signs of „socialism or death” next to highways, or some drawings of Uncle Sam being punched by a Cuban fist, but since tourism is such an important source of income for Cuba right now, it’s not likely do decrease. There are some things that still show very clearly that this is a socialist country, for example, currency. Cuba has two, moneda nacional or MN and CUC or convertible pesos (1 CUC is 25 MN, 1CUC is also 1 USD). That is supposed to change soon as well, so Cuba is about to face big changes.
My journey begins with a nearly eleven hour flight with Condor from Frankfurt, airplane full of very happy Germans and empty airport of Varadero. The air is humid and hot. Hand luggage is scanned quickly, same with passports and visas and I am waiting for my luggage at the arrivals. Unfortunately, I am the only one from my flight not to get by suitcase…. Lost & found guy just shrugs his shoulders and says he is not sure if there are any flights from Europe the next day. No vanity kit, no compensation, nothing. I get sad. This is not nearly the first time I don’t get my luggage, and I do have a good insurance and some essentials in the hand luggage, but the trip starts grimly. I have heard that Cuba is quite unsuitable for shopping, and spending time on that was not included in my agenda. I watch the first retro cars pass by and try not to think about it. I get my bag only on Day 4 after arrival, and until then I am the biggest fan of Cuba. All of my new dresses and T-shirts say „Cuba!” and the only shorts that fit me in the hotel shop are those for kids, XXL size. There is also one more issue – it’s nearly impossible to find a store that can provide a receipt with the purchase. Receipts are only given for 50+ cigar purchases, and all of the cash registers „do not work”. In the end someone offers me to write a receipt on a page from a notebook. The first glimpse of Cuba assures me that I am used to a whole different world.
What is Cuba?
Havana is like a different country inside Cuba. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Varadero even is in Cuba. Even Trinidad [de Cuba] seems very different, and Pinar Del Rio is nothing like all of the above mentioned. Then what is Cuba really like? I would say there are two of them – tourist Cuba and the local Cuba. In areas with many tourists it seems that locals go by quite well. They have clean houses with good TVs, handling newest smartphones (which loudly play hottest hits). I’ve heard smartphones are something of status symbols, and noticed that the most agile guides definitely have the best phones. You can see right away than they have access to convertible pesos and their work with tourists. Tips and commissions is what really makes their salary. Observing these Cubans I don’t see much difference between them and locals in Curacao, life as in any Caribbean country.
The local Cuba is quite different. On our way to the Bay of Pigs we ask the driver to stop in Jovellanos, a small city that does not seem to hold any significance for tourists, if you don’t count the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin farm a few kilometers away.
The circus is here! Two tall, white tourists that everyone is watching. All conversations stop, our every move is observed carefully. The feeling is somewhat similar to the parts in movie Inception, when everyone is slowly starting to move towards us. We don’t look anyone in the eye, quickly walk around the block and see the poverty of Cuba we have heard so much about. It’s not nearly as bad as during Period Especial, when they ate palm fruits instead of feeding those to the pigs, but it’s nothing like the touristy places we have been to before. There is nothing to buy in the shop, it looks completely empty. You can buy some beans around the corner. There is a store where you should be able to buy electronics, but it doesn’t seem to have much more than few clocks. No one approaches us here to offer cigars like it would happen on every Varadero or Havana street. No fresh mamei or bananas, as in La Isabel, which we just visited. The city seems grim.
Commissions and Havana
I get to go to Havana twice, once in a private tour, in an overly conditioned nine-seat bus with a bored guide Abel, second time in a 1957 Ford (speedometer doesn’t work, the seats are covered in plastic wrapping, but it has air-conditioning, which sometimes is even turned on!). The driver doesn’t speak any English, but our second guide Horhe does (and tries to pocket commissions whenever he can). The alternative guide to Cuba – Cuba Conga – says that if you have a Cuban friend who takes you around, be prepared to spend 30% more than you would have alone. For every purchase you make, your Cuban friend will get a commission. Of course it’s not going to be deducted from the shop or restaurant profit! It’s added on top, for you to be paid. Also the book has a very good explanation on how Cubans see tourists. Imagine a tree that grows dollars instead of regular leaves. Would you pass by it and not pick up a single leave? Of course you would shake it until nothing falls down! Welcome to Cuba, you are the dollar tree! Although we did not come across the begging we were warned about, we did see some clearly exaggerated prices, especially in the restrooms. We were even laughing that rum is cheap and pissing is expensive. Near every restroom at every hotel, restaurant, bar there is a woman sitting right next to the entrance. She gives out toilet paper by piece and shows you a small plate that has 1 CUC coins in it. You have to pay for going! In comparison, 0,3 l of Santiago De Cuba rum costs 3,80 CUC. As Horhe explained to us, this is the only income for the lady and she makes sure the restrooms are in good condition, so we should give her some coins. But it’s not like she just sits there quietly! She will ask for the money, demand it, if needed, and use plenty of gestures to make sure you understand. It even doesn’t matter that you are a guest of the restaurant and have paid exorbitant price for lunch. Even if you have your own paper, you must pay. After two days of irritation for nearly euro payment for going to the restroom, we finally understood that you can leave smaller coins as well; she will thank for them and stop gesturing. The only difference is that when you exit the restroom, the small coins will have disappeared from the plate and will again proudly display only 1 CUC coins and bills.
Places to See in Havana
Although May is considered to be off-season, there are crowds of tourists in Havana, as well as crowds of obtrusive sellers and entertainers. You can buy fake cigars made of banana leaves; buy plenty of caricatures with your own face, scribbled in thirty seconds with a sharpie. Authentic looking women in costumers are kissing passers buy. Prostitution is forbidden in Cuba, and locals can be sent for two years to a rehabilitation camp, if caught, but it doesn’t stop them. If a bigger tourist group walks by, then all of the attention is devoted to them and you are off the hook.
Our Havana tour is split into three parts – old Havana or Habana Vieja, with a short stop at the Jesus Christ statue with the view to the city, central Havana and Vedado. Old Havana is being renovated with the help of UNESCO to its full glory. Paved roads, street musicians, old buildings, this is the true heritage of Havana. The famous Plaza de Cathedral; San Francisco basilica and many more unused (or more precisely – used as concert halls and for other purposes) churches from the Spanish times are here. There are also a large number of small and expensive hotels in this area, and Abel does not stop talking about them. Beyoncé stayed in this one last year! Where did you say you are from? Latvia? Lithuania, Arvids Sabonis was here! He also shows us where the king of Spain stayed, the wood paved road next to the governors house and the famous Ernest Hemingway hotel. They mention Hemingway here a lot, as the winner of a Pulitzer wrote „Old Man and the Sea” while living in Cuba.
Central Havana reminds me of run-down Art Nouveau area in Riga. The houses are very beautiful, but every balcony has laundry, and the majority of houses are very run down. The favorite Hemingway’s bar La Floridita is also here and a copy of the Capitol in Washington, almost like the one we saw last year. I noticed quite a few buildings around here than reminded me of the States, and the guide confirmed that these are copies.
Central Havana will be the favorite spot for those who come to see old cars in Havana. This place has the largest and most beautiful concentration of various American and Soviet cars. Our guide called the pink convertibles with the handsome Cubans tourist traps, as no European woman is able to pass by one. The nice, clean and polished cars are for transporting the tourists. Driver has to pay 2 CUC per day for taxi permit. There is also plenty of old and rusty cars in Cuba, for personal use, so it’s not like the cars are only for show, locals actually use them.
The main point of interest in Vedado is the Revolution square, which hosts several ministries around it. I wouldn’t call it anything special, but the locals say that many important speeches have been given here. I am much more curious about the cemetery nearby, Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. It has been described as one of the most important historical cemeteries of the world, and the most interesting cemetery in the Latin America. When passing by in a car we see many sculptures, crypts and and are quite intrigued. But you do have to pay 5 CUC per person, if you want to see it, so we decide to take a few pictures from the gate and leave. At the entrance we noticed some raw eggs on the pavement, small dolls and sweets. Horhe says „voodoo”. Upon asking others we find out that this is linked to Santeria, the local religion that formed during the slave times. Since slaves were not allowed to worship their own idols, they worshiped Catholic ones, but in fact those were their gods simply dressed up like Catholic ones. So a mixture of catholic and African native religions was born.
Markets, the Show and the Hotel
If you would like to buy some souvenirs, Havana has plenty of artisan markets. It did however seem that many of the items were actually produced in China (T-shirts, bags and hats) or in Spain. The largest market that I visited was Almacenes San José, where you could buy sandals (my cousin works at the factory, very good price!), and many small souvenirs – purses, drums, magnets and, supposedly, black coral jewelry. The little pendants look quite nice, but I don’t believe they are the real thing; more likely are made of blue horn or just plastic. But all of the Cubans kept saying that they are from real black coral, washed ashore and no coral reefs have been harmed. Each shop keeper greets every passerby and starts with the recital of the couplet – looking is free, where are you from? Some guidebooks say that Cubans don’t bargain, but you certainly should. “Leaving” works well, just as better price for several items and cheapest item for free. It still costs much less than what you will pay for it. You should also check thoroughly if the total is correctly calculated and if you get the change in the right currency. Locals tend to try to sneak in some MN instead of convertible pesos. If you do come across a shop that gives receipts, always take one, as there might be someone checking it at the door. If you don’t have one to show, you might end up paying twice.
I was a bit skeptical about attending Tropicana Cabaret show in Havana, as I had read conflicting reviews, including those saying that the show is cancelled on rainy days. Surprisingly, this was one of the most interesting experiences during the whole visit in Havana! Bright costumes, professional dancers and good choreography. Some of our group even commented that it’s much better than the shows in Paris. There was plenty of dancing, singing, live band and constant change of costumes and location. We also got two complimentary bottles of rum for the group of eight and a can of local coke for each. You do have to pay extra for taking pictures or videos. Tropicana Cabaret was yet another place where you could see young Cubans working their way with some senior Germans, and by the looks of the girls they had seen the show at least a few dozen times before.
We stayed for one night in Havana, and getting back from the cabaret the streets were empty. Then suddenly next to one of the houses there was a large crowd and numerous parked cars. It’s a party. We asked Abel if it was safe there, he just nervously laughed and said he cannot guarantee anything. He is from Matanzas (a city closer to Varadero), so for him Havana is foreign territory too.
The hotel is just like I imagined it would be. Upon check-in they write down nearly everything that your passport says. The carpets are worn, bubbled up and the room has a distinct smell of mold. Bathroom looks just like one in a motel in USA, just the handle stays in my hands when I try to turn on the shower. Curiously I turn on the TV. Local channel is showing Soviet movie with Spanish subtitles. There are a few Venezuelan channels, BBC and CNN. The locals only get to see local channels and some of the Venezuelan ones. I am not surprised when I catch the cleaning lady sitting on the bed and watching TV instead of cleaning the room. Locals listen to all the latest hits as well; you can hear Pitbull (who is of Cuba descent) and Enrique Iglesias everywhere.
I feel relieved when we leave Havana for Las Terrazas. You tire quickly of Havana, as it is intrusive and too bright. The heat only increases, its +33°C now and the locals say that the rainy season is yet to begin this year. I watch the mango groves right next to the highway, listen the guide tell stories of stadiums and monuments. Almost every bridge and major crossing has hitchhikers waving at us intently. Many of them wave money, showing how serious they are about getting there. The driver shows them a strange sign, and I believe it has something to do with the fire or tourists. Cubans say they are in fire or working with tourists. Even policeman hitchhike, but seeing the sign just smile and lower the arm. There is not enough public transport in Cuba, the stops are full of people, and the buses even more. The only solution right now seems to be building more benches at the stops (some have even 20 of those!). Now when some entrepreneurship is allowed, many locals have started transportation businesses. We used to have old ZIL trucks in Soviet times, with a sign “Bread”. Just like those, but with benches inside and windows cut out, and they are buses now. Many buses are from the fifties. Even old train cars are remodeled into buses.
The road to Las Terrazas is much nicer than the one on the way from Varadero to Havana. The fields are taken care of, you see cattle and it’s much greener here. But many of the fields are still ploughed with oxen. Finally we reach Las Terrazas special area and the guide seems confused. From the looks of it, he has never been here before and is not sure where should we go. We are asked to wait while local band is playing music (and you can always buy a CD for 10 CUC) and we are given free drinks.
Just in a short while we meet Cecilia, a tall, tanned blonde in her forties who speaks with a French accent. Finally there is someone knowledgeable enough about Cuba! Although at first sight Las Terrazas does not seem like it could offer much, it holds some of the sweetest memories of Cuba. Cecilia tells us story of Las Terrazas, how due to cut forests the erosion of the land begun and the village was out of work and prostitution was the main occupation. Now Las Terrazas is an exemplary commune, where money from tourism is reinvested back into local community. New trees have been planted and the coffee drying area from the French times is still there. Cecilia tells us stories and legends about the place and overall Cuba, shows Cuban birds and gives us to try pomma rosa fruits (brought here by the French). The best story is about the tourist tree. There is a red barked tree in Cuba where pieces of bark are constantly peeling off. It’s being called the tourist tree, because during revolution Cuban engineers fled the country and Russians from Soviet Union came to take their place. They got too much sun, turned red and then their skin peeled off, resembling the tree. This is how the tree got its name.
Cecilia really works very hard to show us all the best. We find out more about Period Especial and how Cuban women used hibiscus flowers to color their hair, but only until the first rain came. How they used to hide notes inside their hairstyles to bring them to rebels. We also get a whole basket of yellow mango for just 1 CUC and find out that the land n Cuba is no longer free and you have to pay for it to build a house. Swimming in natural pools, drinking famous Maria’s coffee (and ice cream shake for those who don’t enjoy coffee), get one of the tastiest meals in Cuba. When we ask for her phone number, to share with next tourists, Cecilia gets quite for a while. Then says that she is not allowed to take private groups as she could lose her job and never get a new one. But if you ever visit Las Terrazas, be sure to request her, as she is the best guide we saw during the whole Cuban trip!
Just one note – don’t buy famous Maria’s coffee. I bought some and took it as a souvenir to a relative of mine who enjoys a good cup of coffee. She said that this was the worst coffee she has ever tried, worse even than the American one. So don’t waste your money on coffee!
Pinar Del Rio
The main purpose of our visit to Vinales and Pinar Del Rio is to see how cigars are made. Although we don’t consume any rum or cigars at home, but this is one of the main things to do in Cuba, so we must go there! We visit the Cueva del Indio (no signs of any people ever living there), the boat ride through the cave is entertaining. Just before entering the cave, each of us gets a small glass of sugarcane juice, which can be spiced with rum upon request. The day is hot, so we gladly accept it and the juice turns out to be very tasty, however, our guide of the day Fidel suddenly apologizes and says that the drink is not included in the tour fee. It’s 3 CUC a glass! We get really angry, say that we won’t pay more than 1.50 CUC, and even then it’s robbery. We already drank the juice, the Cuban is angry as well, we get scared that we won’t get a chance to see the caves. This was the first time we saw Cubans really shaking our dollar tree and after this we stop giving tips to obtrusive musicians at lunch and at all requests “pour la musica” we answered with “no thank you!”.
Pinar Del Rio might just be the most beautiful province in Cuba. The valleys are included in the list of UNESCO heritage sites and locals say they were formed 300 million years ago and dinosaur fossils have been found here. To honor that the gigantic Prehistorical Mural painting was done on one of the hills, and it is the biggest outdoor painting in the world. It’s hot, we feel tired and the painting looks much like one done by a kid, so we rush Fidel to get moving. He seems unhappy that we have not purchased any Pina Coladas at the nearby café and he doesn’t get any commission.
In just a little while we drive through the city of Vinales, with brief stop for pictures and arrive at the tobacco plantation. We are shown the only tobacco plant that has not been harvested (in order to show something to tourists) and afterwards we go to the drying house. 90% of the tobacco belongs to the state, and 20% is kept by the Cuban. Cuban mathematics, they say. The drying house is full of leaves and the man starts to roll a cigar. It’s too hot and I get a headache from the strong smell. I am glad that we go to the man’s house next. Can you buy cigars here? Sure! His wife takes out a box from under the bed, removes some newspapers and underneath there are cigars. The experts at home to whom we took those as souvenirs confirmed that these are really Monte Cristo, as we were told (but the experts also said that they are unevenly rolled and would not pass quality control). A bundle of 10 costs 10 CUC (in comparison a box of 5 cigars at the official store could be roughly 35 CUC). Can we get a discount? The woman is not happy, but agrees to give 12 cigars each for the same price. Each bundle then is carefully wrapped in a newspaper. We also finally see some brown sugar in their home, as no store has that. The locals ask us why would we want the unhealthy brown sugar?
We go back to our car and Fidel excuses himself and says he is thirsty and will go back to the house to get a glass of water. Upon return we see him putting some money in the pockets. Of course, the commissions work here as well. At least he helps us buy some cheap mangoes on the way (6 large ones for 1 CUC) and tells a few stories of the Real Cuba. He used to be a professor, but could not make a living out of it, so 20 years ago he begun a career in tourism. His wife is a doctor, and his son is still in university. All Cuban men have to serve in the army for a year, and if you don’t pursue university studies, you serve 2 years. After graduation, based on the exam results each person is assigned their study placement. The most prestigious one is for doctors. Fidel tells us proudly that the best healthcare in the world is in Cuba, and they are not bothered by the shortages of medication! Cuban government sends doctors to missions in South America and Africa, and they even get paid something for that! It’s also the way how Cuba gets oil from Venezuela, via barter. Having seen the toothless Cubans taking care of the hotel garden I am somehow skeptical about that amazing healthcare. Although Cuba has a high average lifespan for both men and women, knowing how statistics could lie in the Soviet times, I don’t quite believe in all that is being said.
The Bay of Pigs and the Season of Crabs
After all the driving around we finally want to relax, but in the end we lounge on the beach for just a day. Next trip is to the Bay of Pigs, known also as Playa Girón and Bahía de Cochinos. The Bay of Pigs is a very important historical sight in Cuba, as are the nearby towns. Every small town has a historical place related to Castro or Che Guevara, and there are many graves next to the highway.
We get to the Bay of Pigs by finding Aramis in the hotel, a diving instructor who charges 90 CUC for two dives and transport to get there. Snorkeling costs 45-50 CUC per person, depending on the number of people coming. Diving is amazing! There are only two of us and Aramis. After this wonderful day I decide that I want to do this again and agree with Aramis for the next trip. The water is transparent, visibility around 35 m, surface temperature 31°C. Caribbean Sea is at least one degree warmer than the Atlantic Ocean. Even 30 m deep it is still 29°C warm.
There aren’t that many fish, unfortunately. Aramis says that it’s because of the over-fishing. We see some barracudas, lionfish, a little nice starfish, some yellow and blue fish and some amazing shells. There is a small ship wreck on the second dive as well. We take a small piece of bread with us on one of the dives and finally I get to see some more fish, so many that I feel like falling in water. Between the dives Aramis regales us with small bananas and sugarcane. We also go to see the nearby cenote, the water is much colder here, but the visibility is good. Its 70 m deep and there are some leaves on the surface of water, and underneath the leaves, some small, brown fish. There are also colorful fish from the sea. On the way to the cenote we observe thousands and thousands of crabs. They go to lay eggs in the sea. The grass; all tree barks and stone piles are full of them. We also notice something that looks like red ants on the ground, also thousands of them. Those are the small hatched crabs making their way to the land! The red crabs are poisonous, so you can’t eat them, but there are plenty of other crabs as well and people collect them in large bags right next to the highway. Aramis says there are thousands of them on roads, especially after the rain and you can damage the tires of your car. My husband just laughs and says he does not believe that.
The only bad thing about the Bay of Pigs is the enormous amount of mosquitoes. While I am exiting the car and getting my belongings, I get five bites in thirty seconds. Covered head to toe in mosquito spray I try to change into my wet-suit and Aramis just laughs and says that mosquitoes is one of the reasons why Americans couldn’t get anything done here. The swamp around the bay is a true tropical mosquito paradise.
After the dive Aramis takes us to the best restaurant we see in Cuba during our whole visit. For 12 CUC per person we get a large plate of lobster, crabs, turtle and crocodile meat, crabs, rice, black beans, salads and fresh juice. It’s really tasty! One of the owners of the restaurant offers crocodile bags, belts and wallets, but we decide not to buy those.
Trinidad de Cuba
There is only one destination we are still considering, and it is not cheap to get there and it’s quite far. Horhe told us it would be at least 300 CUC per day to get there, as no one will go to such a far place for less. After consulting with Aramis we find a driver who will take us for 200 CUC, visiting also the city of Cienfuegos. Initially we debate if it is worth it, as a regular excursion would cost us 95 CUC per person, lunch included and additional stop at Santa Clara. As seeing the grave of Che Guevara is not on top of our list, we try to add El Nicho waterfalls to our tour, but driver does not agree. He says the weather is bad, but we are sure it has more to do with kilometers and gasoline than weather. Later he even mentions that he does not care what time we get back, as long as we stick to the route. He does promise to take us to the most beautiful beach in the Caribbean. And, as long as we can stop whenever we please, it’s better than the organized tour, so it’s a deal! Renting a car would still be roughly 70-100 CUC per day, and gasoline is not free either. Here we even have someone drive us around!
It’s a Sunday’s morning and we wait for the driver at the hotel. He comes and next to him… is his wife. It’s Sunday, she doesn’t go to work and really wants to see Trinidad, as has never been there. They chat all the way there in Spanish, listen to music from her smartphone and she really gets a prime tour in Trinidad. Since the driver doesn’t speak almost any English anyway and our Spanish is limited to bebida and banos, we get our Lonely Planet out and do our own tour.
This small city is really charming! It celebrated its 500th birthday in 2014, and it seems like the time has stopped here. It was at its prime during sugar trade. Small paved streets, one story high buildings, colorful walls and cozy churches created that old-town feeling. It all changes at eleven o’clock when the tourist buses roll in. Charming city becomes a large marketplace.
Here I finally see something that resembles black coral, and judging by the price (35 CUC for a small necklace) it might be the real deal. The “plastic” ones were around 12 CUC, and once I start to leave the seller shouts 25CUC. But I decide not to buy just for the sake of buying and continue on. There are many sellers here, and we are mostly addressed in Russian and offered cigars. It’s also full of old guys posing with cigars and donkeys. The donkey has a sign “photo=0.5 CUC”.
We finally decide to go get something to eat, and based on the recommendation of a driver, go to an “all-you-can-eat” type of buffet. It should be 12 CUC per person. Upon entering we ask for the price and are told that it’s 15 CUC. Our 12 CUC is refused and the waiter says it’s without drinks. So we go to a small shop across the street, get our own drinks and come back. Now we are greeted by a different waiter and suddenly the price without drinks is 10.50 CUC. Good thing we did not agree on the first visit! We eat plenty of mangoes again, but the meat tastes funny.
Near Playa Ancon
Playa Ancon was the place we thought we will be taken to, but driver drops us off closer to Trinidad. It’s the real Cuban beach here. You can rent straw parasols for 1 CUC, but we refuse. We change next to the car, lock our belongings and go for a swim. The driver and his wife also go swimming, putting on plenty of sunscreen. Since this is an unfamiliar beach, I try to swim and not to walk, as I am afraid of sea urchins. Many people are snorkeling. Later I go shelling and notice something red and spiky in water. Good thing I wasn’t walking much in the water! We spend an hour and watch the clouds get thicker around the mountains. Will it rain in Cienfuegos?
On Our Way to Cienfuegos and the City
Seems Cubans don’t see the beauty of their nature as we see it. The driver keeps stopping at some city signs, thinking this might be interesting. But we are fascinated by nature, the beautiful valleys and trees, small bridges over bays and mango groves. When we try to explain that to him, he still doesn’t understand us, in the end we agree that we will just stop when we say so. But when we something beautiful again, it’s starting to rain really heavily. We drive through the mountains and it ceases, but the gray clouds are near us and it almost gets dark.
When we finally reach Cienfuegos, it’s raining again. First a bit, with some thunder in the distance, but when we reach the city center, it’s really pouring. Cienfuegos is a historical city, the Pearl of the South and yet another UNESCO world heritage site. I find it similar to New Orleans and then find out that it was established by French immigrants from Louisiana.
We hide in the car from the rain, when notice the kids playing football. They are not bothered by the rain; one of them even is making “rain angels” in a puddle like we do in the winter snow. Another group of kids has a mud fight, using soil from the city greenery. This is what real childhood looks like!
Two weeks in Cuba passed by quickly. Cuba turned out to be different than what I expected it to be. Less stereotypical (those pictures on the internet with old ladies smoking cigars are just not true), a bit richer (at least in the tourist areas) and much more diverse withing limits of one country. Before the trip I was very worried about leaving my belongings in the hotel, but I shouldn’t have, as nothing went missing. I was also slightly surprised by the mix of tourists here. Majority of visitors were from Russia, then some Germans and Canadians. Much like in Turkey, all Cubans upon seeing me tried to speak Russian to me.
It’s not worth to go to Cuba to just lounge on the beach and see nothing from the rest of the country. Egypt and Turkey are much closer to Europe and the service will be better. But you only get old cars and real Cubans in Cuba!
Before going to Cuba you must read Cuba Conga! It’s an alternative to Lonely Planet, a more real perspective on what you can expect. I’d say it’s true for about 80% of the time (did not have any problems with empty ATM’s or too many cows and goats on the roads at night). Reading Lonely Planet never hurts either. I also read one more book, From Cuba with Love, about relationships between Cubans and foreigners, and from what I saw in the cities, it seemed true.
None of us knew any Spanish, unfortunately, and I did not put into much use the few words I learned through Duolingo. Somehow we understood each other and I got the impression that many Cubans speak much better English than they let on. I did get the impression that most working in the tourism will try to cheat you in some way, but they also say that these are not the real Cubans. Aramis and Cecilia must have been exceptions to the rule.
Can you really prepare yourself for Cuba? I don’t believe so. You can only get that Real Cuba feeling on the spot. There are days when it will annoy you and other days when Cuba will seem like the most fascinating country on the planet. But don’t be scared of rainy-crab-mango season in Cuba, May in Cuba is excellent!
Don’t forget to check out the gallery at the top of the page!
Hahaha, you know what? This tiny blue car was actually made in Poland like 20 years ago, I remember my parents driving it! (it’s called fiat 126p and I know even Tom Hanks is a big fan of it!) 😀
Cool! I saw a few Latvian-made RAF as well there, as well as a lot of Moskvich and Lada, and those were the relatively newer ones, as everything else is 40-ties and 50-ties 🙂
Thanks for sharing, love the information!
I hope it will be useful for people’s upcoming trips to Cuba 🙂
I always forget Cuba has beaches, I don’t know why. This sounds like an amazing trip, though and one I definitely need to take!
Yes, they do, and so many! Not just Varadero, but all around, and I would also want to visit some of the smaller islands around too!
Cuba is #1 on my bucket list right now and posts like this make me want to go even more. I am really hoping to go this year or next year so I can hopefully still catch a little bit of “real” Cuba before US tourism takes over.
Sorry to say, but even 2 years ago, when I was in Cuba, there was little left of that “real Cuba”, and USA/Cuba relations had only started to improve. A lot of those “real Cuban” things are just for show. But at least it’s a good thing that overall situation in the country is improving and it’s a better place for those who live there!
I am dying to go to Cuba!
Fingers crossed that you get to go soon! 🙂
I just came back from Cuba a few days ago and I must admit your article helped me to understand a lot of things I lived there. Specially the religion, as I met cubans practising Vodoo but worshiping the Virgin Marie. I wish I had read your post before leaving, but you are right you are never too prepared for Cuba. Thank you for this extensive explanation though and well done on the research 😉
Glad it was useful for you! I have noticed a few times that when I write the travel story about a place, I actually learn a few more things about city/country, facts I would have not heard about had I just visited and not written an article. Seems so strange, to learn that already after the trip!
I went to Cuba 10 years ago and it was incredible. Seems like some things have changed. Totally agree with you about the taste of fresh mangos though, they’re the best!
I envy you! You must have really seen the Real Cuba back then!
What an awesome, detailed, informative post! Can’t find many of these anymore 🙂
Thank you! 🙂 I sometimes feel that I write even too much. Seeing the page count of my articles usually makes me think that I should learn to express myself in shorter way 🙂
I just loved your story. Your pictures are just incredible. It is always sad to loose your luggage while travelling. I have been quite lucky in this sense. Cuba seems to quite a special destination and still haven’t decided for myself whether I want to visit. Thanks for sharing!
The luggage thing seems to be happening to me more often than to others. So I always travel with insurance and luckily this year I have even better one than before 🙂
“Welcome to Cuba, you are the dollar tree!” I had to smile when I read this. My Cuban friends have told me on multiple times how locals view tourists, and your thoughts are exactly on point! Loved your post! The details of your experiences are so visual! Sounds like an incredible trip. I’m definitely saving your post for future itinerary planning! Thanks!
Good that you got real friends and not just some friends to make you part with your money 🙂
I really liked this post. There was so much of Cuba I didn’t know about. Being Canadian I think we’ve taken advantage of the fact that we can get down there so easily (and cheaply). I’ve never been to Havana but I would like to get down there before a lot of changes come from the new US-Cuba relationship!
Have you been to other parts of Cuba?