Friday and Saturday
I should have brought a book. Why oh why did I decide to be a cheapskate and forgo the airport bookshop?! Honestly what else did people do before Internet?
So im now in Cuba. Internet is scarce and iffy, and you have to buy it. I didn’t realise how much time I spend on my phone until now! What makes the lack worse is that I’m here alone. With friends here it would not be so bad, we could chat, get drinks or play cards. But just me? Looks like I’ll be going to bed at 9pm again… Nothing else to do.
I’m staying in a casa particular in centro habana, and I’m not quite sure how this works. Should I spend more time with the family? I tried going down last night (with the excuse that there was no loo roll) hoping they’d invite me to chat or watch TV, but they just looked at me blankly and asked what I needed… so I went back up to my room.
Ive travelled a lot, but this is my first solo adventure. Unfortunately, it’s a bit tougher than expected. First of all, the promised asistur shop where I could apparently buy travel insurance at the airport was nonexistent or invisible. So now I’m winging it. Shit shit shit. Wish me luck people. Then I didn’t get as much currency for my money as hoped and my budget instantly shrivelled up. Not wanting to wander this neighbourhood at night, I went to bed hungry.
This morning I got up at 9 (sleep is free entertainment after all) and made my way to the Museo de la Revolución. I tried to find a supermarket to stock up on water and cheap food but apparently they don’t really exist for tourists here. The ones I found are like halls with counters, no shelves or food on display. Also the two currency system is confusing. There are CUCs for tourists and CUPs for locals. However, the exchange rate is pretty much up to the locals. So sometimes museum entry is 8cuc or 8cup, but at the airport they had 25cup is 1cuc. So I feel like I’m just being ripped off at the the time. Eurgh.
The Museo de la revolución was OK, I’m glad I read up about the revolution first though as it was very poorly laid out and the displays were a bit dull. Though I did see the Granma, the boat Che Guevara and Fidel Castro used to sail to Cuba.
The malecón was OK too, a bit overhyped. The whole Centro Habana region is a bit in disrepair, it felt like a post apocalyptic Vienna almost. Honestly most buildings looked like palaces, but grey and crumbling.
Luckily the habana viejo area is much more well kept (for the tourists). I immediately felt much safer and at ease, and finally found some food: churros! My first meal in 18 hours… Although in this heat you don’t get so hungry.
I explored a great museum in the plaza armas, which was free (I think, I mean I just walked past reception into the museum and no one cared), and this one was far more informative and interactive than the last. I learnt about dance, books, history and cartography of Cuba.
Then I headed to the plaza vieja and went up the camara obscura, a periscope donated by Spain, the only of its kind in Latin America, from which you can see the whole city. It’s amazing!
I’d kind of run out of things to do by now, as one person gets through things much faster than two. So I sat down for a lemonade and did a few sudokos (so bored of them, should’ve bought a book..) and then I noticed lots of people were on their phones. This may be a normal site anywhere else in the world, but here it’s like finding oil. Wi-Fi! I bought a card from the hotel opposite and logged on to top up my revolut account, so I could try to take out more money later (which I did Yay). The connection was a bit iffy, but I didn’t need to do much else.
Then I checked out the capitol building, cool, then I headed back down the main shopping street to the plaza armas, where I got chatting with an old Cuban man, Juan Antonio. I was hesitant at first, but I think he just wanted a chat (unlike most others who try to chat then ask for money…). He kept recommending his friend’s restaurant so I think that was his plan, but he didn’t force it. After about an hour it started to rain, which was my cue to leave and head back home.
This morning I decided to splash out on a proper breakfast: eggs, toast and sausage. Worth it, as I was planning on spending the day at the beach. Now, the best beaches in Cuba are in veradero, but that’s a bit far so I decided on the “decent enough” one near Havana (santa maría). Omg! It was so beautiful! Cristal clear flat blue water, white sand, non commercial! I can’t begin to imagine what veradero can add… I took the transtur T3 bus from the Parque centro, which cost 5cuc return. I also rented a lounger and parasol for 4 cuc ,which was all I spent at the beach, the 6 hours I was there. I surprised myself and wasn’t bored without Internet nor books, entertaining myself with music and Sudokus. I befriended the lady next to me, who was also alone, should we could take turns watching each others stuff while we swam #solotraveltips.
I could stay in that water all day! Downsides to being alone: no young hip camera smart friends, sorry Barbara but the one pic you took is not exactly Insta material 😉 also when I went to dinner at a restaurant in the evening and got a great street table on obsico (the main busy street), I realised I had no one to watch my stuff while I went in to the loo. Tricky. So I had to drag my whole beach backpack into the loos, leaving just my mojito to save my table, hoping no one would tamper with it while I was gone :s
About 7 people today asked me either for money or for me to be their girlfriend. “taxi lady? Beautiful lady? Need boyfriend? Why alone? Lady lady!” piss off already… Another woman tried to show me her house, them pictures of her family, then surprise surprise asked for money. I’ve had enough of people seeing a bag of money rather than me, a person. Communism doesn’t work, they’re all in it for themselves #justsayin. Also two other women asked me for soap, one even grabbed my arm… Is soap in short supply here? I wish I had Google at times like this… Again, how did people live before?
Today I headed out of the city to the countryside, to a small village called viñales in Piñar de Río. It’s called the garden of Cuba, and omg you can see why. It’s so so beautiful here, pure paradise. There are huge rocks/hills covered in lush jungle, green palm trees, deep terracotta red soil, stay huts and lots of horses, which besides the old American cars seem to be the main form of transport for most people here.
I got here by taxi collectivo, a shared taxi which picked me up at 8:30 in the morning. It was one of the old style cars, and was huge! There were seats for 12 people!! So the taxi was good as I got chatting with the others on board: Ran, from Korea, Terah from the States, two French guys (Javier and one who I don’t remember) and a bunch of American guys.
Unfortunately, about halfway we heard a big bang and the car swerved across the motorway, coming to a stop under a bridge. Unharmed, we got out and the driver put on his overalls and got to work on hammering the chassis. Honestly I don’t know what he was trying to do, but we left him to it. “only 15 minutes, quick stop, then drive fast”.. About 45 minutes later we were on the verge of hitchhiking instead, but then apparently we were good to go again.
The driver said he’d treat us to a trip to a tobacco farm as compensation, which was really interesting. Did you know, 90% of any crop you grow on your land in Cuba, be it coffee, maíz, tobacco, goes straight to the government after you harvest it. You only get to keep 10% of what you grow! We learnt a lot about the process of growing tobacco, the fermentation processes, the rolling into cigars. Then of course we got to try a cigar. Having never smoked a cigarette before (be proud mum), I felt very naive (“which end is the mouth end?”). The smell was nothing like a cigarette, it actually smelt and tasted of honey! It was actually quite nice… (sorry mum). I didn’t finish mine, they cut off the ashy bit and packed it up for me to carry on later. You can keep it for up to 5 years (in a warm humid environment is best), maybe I’ll save it for graduation .
Then the taxi driver also took us to a viewpoint at the hotel Las jazmines, it was incredible. Dinosaurs would not have been out of place in that Vista!
If only I had the money to stay here!
We finally got into viñales at about 3pm, a tad late to do any tours, so I settled into my Casa particular (casa lala), walked the streets, got some info from the tourist office. I’ve also decided to stay an extra night here (Perks of travelling alone, complete control!), so I booked my bus to Havana for Wednesday morning.
For dinner I looked at the restaurants by the square, and I saw a girl eating alone, so I took my chances and sat down at the table next to her, and we did start chatting. She turned out to be American called Alice, doing a world trip. She invited me to a bar in the evening, but of course in this world without Internet or phone signal, it was very much “well maybe see you around”. Planning things here is hard.
After a quick nap, I decided yes, I would go out that night. It was a bit scary, not knowing where I would go, if there would be anyone I knew, a night out by myself. I sat in the main square for a bit, spying on people who also looked alone. It’s funny, as this square is the only place in the village with WiFi, (no one has it at home, and you pay per hour). So it’s really bustling with people, but everyone is also on their phones. People being antisocial, together. I guess it’s kind of good, as it brings people to the square, otherwise they might not even bother coming out.
After about 10 mins a Cuban guy approached me and started chatting. He kept showing me his work id and he spoke so slowly, it was really patronising. He invited me for a beer, and hesitant but not having many other things to do, I accepted. He seemed quite dull, and despite his frequent sleazy fitting attempts I tried to make the most of talking to a Cuban to learn more about them. Turns out, he’s 29 years old and has NEVER been on the Internet in his life. Fuck me, what a cultural difference. I mean, I get it if you’re old, as it’s not from your time, but someone more or less my age who’s never even been on Google, wow. I asked what he would do if he had the chance, he said he didn’t even know what he could do. Cue me having to explain Google, email, Facebook, everything crucial to Western life. He then wanted to buy me another beer and take me to salsa, but i cut in, saying my “friend” was waiting for me in the square. Suspicious and disappointed, he let me go, suddenly a lot colder than before, he walked back with me to the square in silence. Sorry mate for wasting your time, apparently… Amazingly, just as we arrived at the Square, I saw the two French guys from the taxi! The waved me over, and my cue to ditch Mr Desconectado was spot on!
Then after about 5 mins of chatting with the guys, Terah rocks up too! Taxi reunion, completely spontaneous! That’s something I love about this village, everyone seems to know everyone, and it’s so small the same can happen with the visitors too! No need to make plans after all! Terah and I then went to get drinks, while the boys went to shower, but they never came back so I guess I’ll never speak to them again 😥 that’s definitely a pro of Facebook, instantly add people to your virtual address book, just in case.
A cuba libre and a mojito later, Terah and I headed to the village social club, the place to be apparently. It was actually really fun! A stranger, who I will from now on refer to as “magic mojito man” handed me a mojito as I was waiting at the bar, then disappeared #winning. I danced some salsa!!! And surprised the Cubans who were actually quite impressed by my dancing skills! I’m so proud of myself haha, I HAVE learnt something this year then I finished the mojito, and BAM magic mojito man strikes again, another mojito in my hands and *poof* he disappeared. Magic. More salsa, more reggaeton, new friends from Spain, from Australia, cubans asking “boyfriend for the night?”, girls replying “no graciasss”, & Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull, Shakira.
Having decided to stay an extra night, I had the whole day to explore viñales Valley. I decided to take the tourist bus, which for 5 cuc drives you round the valley all day. Unfortunately, my bad luck struck again as they told me that day they’d only be running until 1pm rather than 6, so I didn’t have time to see everything. We visited the viewpoint at the jazmines hotel (again), the muralla de la prehistoria (a huge, pointless mural on the side of a mogote (hill) commissioned by Fidel Castro, which doesn’t really have a purpose other than attracting tourists… So strange).
Then I carried on to a cave, la cueva de los indios, a cave in a mogote where the prehispanic inhabitants sought refuge from the colonisers. At the end there was a small boat ride through the cave, while the guide pointed out various funnily shaped rock formations.
My next stop was another tobacco farm, where the information was a bit contradictory to what I learnt yesterday. Now I don’t know what to believe!
I then walked back to the village, 2km, rather than waiting for the bus to come round again. I grabbed some lunch, then bumped into Ran, from the taxi! We chatted for a bit, then I took a taxi to the canopy zip lines. It was so cool, zip lining between the mogotes, the views were insane! Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos, too busy trying not to die y’no.
In the evening I headed back to the square, where I got chatting with a girl from Barbados, joyce-elena, also travelling alone. We then also approached another girl who looked alone, Fleur from the Netherlands, and all went back to joyce-elena’s for dinner. Her host mum was soooo nice! Basically all the houses in vinales are casa particulares, but they can be so different! She cooked us dinner and joined us, joked, showed us her poorly chicken which couldn’t wall so she was keeping it in a plant pot we ended up staying till almost midnight, sitting on the roof, the stars were so clear! A great last night in Cuba.
Early start for my 8am bus! I bumped into Alice, the girl I met in a restaurant. Viñales is great for bumping into people! Unfortunately, I seem to be a bit cursed as the bus broke down about half an hour into the journey. So we were stuck at the pinar de Río bus terminal for about 2 hours, waiting. We finally got back on the bus, and got to Havana at about 12:30, so Alice, Elena (a Swiss girl) and I took a taxi to vedado to get lunch. I explored vedado a bit while Alice watched our bags in a hotel while she got wifi. I saw the university, the main street and a small market. Vedado is nice, a lot richer than habana vieja and centro.
Then at 3 we took a taxi to the airport, the driver had offered us it for 15 cuc, a good deal. We got on really well in the taxi, dancing to his music, but still, I’m sorry to stay he tried to scam us in the end. Never trust anyone, no-one really does anything for kindness’ sake. When we got to the airport he suddenly said the fare was 20, using the excuse that Alice had had to run back into the hotel as she’d left her phone there, which took literally 30 seconds. When we contested, he tried to grab Alice’s purse and her loose cash, but luckily she closed her bag quickly enough. What a dick, pendejo.
My flight wasn’t till 8pm so I had plenty of time to change my CUCs back to pounds, find the gate (the airport is tiny btw) and get something to drink. Once again, the flight security scanners didn’t pick up my various liquids in my hand-luggage (some moisturiser and anti-bac), they’re so lax here.
Once we landed back in CDMX, the plane filled with the noise of 100 people finally connecting to data, so much pinging and beeping!
Overall Cuba has been an amazing experience, and although the trip had its ups and down I wish I could’ve stayed longer! Hopefully I can go back one day!
PS: Some blasts from the past: