My Cuban adventure was born within ten minutes of meeting a fellow aussie Jodie in a hostel in Valladolid, Mexico. A vague thought that I wanted to explore Cuba morphed into getting on a plane three days later with a girl i’d just met! Hesitant to go it alone, I jumped on the opportunity of some company and off we went.
After spending two days researching all we could, we were hardly prepared for what to expect. It was difficult to find current information and to be honest we weren’t entirely sure how we would get money, arrange transport or book accomodation. All we knew was that when we got to Cuba, we’d be cut off from the ease of the internet to help us to find our way.
With a little ‘dutch courage’, a stash of chicken noodles, and some Euros in our pockets, we were as ready as we were ever going to be.
Landing in La Habana we looked around the airport for suitable ‘targets’ to share a taxi with us, and soon found ourselves sharing beers in a Classic Chevy station wagon with two likeable Americans on our way to Viñales. Johnny and Evan seemed to have more plans than we did, and I’d heard the Viñales valley was lovely, so off we went!
Arriving late afternoon we checked into our first homestay or casa particular (arranged with ease by our taxi driver) and settled into a hammock. The Casas are a popular way for tourists to give back to local families by renting out rooms within their homes in lieu of staying in hotels, which for the most part are either extremely expensive or extremely basic.
Late afternoon was a great time to explore town, walking through the local streets up the hill. Instantly we were in awe at the friendliness of the locals and the colourfulness of the houses standing brighly against the green backdrop of the mountains. Touring on horseback is a popular activity but lacking time we opted for a tour by taxi instead, stopping at a mural, mirador (lookout) and tobacco farm.
Back to La Habana, it was total sensory overload. We spent our time people watching, and walking along the Malecon (oceanfront Boulevard). It is hard to ignore the obvious signs of money and wealth that was once there, stated by the large grand buildings and marble staircases that litter the once grand city – and I pondered how things would be so different if history had gone in a different direction.
Crumbling buildings dot the landscape, touched by earthquakes and years if neglect. Polished classic American cars on display in Parque Central with the drivers looking for tourists to pay $25CUC for an hour tour around the colourful barrios (neighbourhoods).
That being said, walking around the Cuban hub it was hard to ignore the signs of poverty. Every 10m stretch we were offered taxis, accomodation, food, music… Anything else we wanted?
At the beginning, searching for a casa particular was quite fun. We would look for the signs hung above the front door, ring a doorbell and be greeted by the dueño del casa, usually surprising us shouting down from a balcony three or four floors above.
The first time we were in La Habana, we quickly found a Casa just two streets back from the main street, Calle Obispo. Turns out, we were actaully quite lucky that day as the Pope was in town and the very next day we spent three hours knocking on doors before we finally found something. Exhausted, and at the point where we would just about have accepted anything. A similar experience in Trinidad when we walked for around an hour with heavy backpacks in tow – I can’t even begin to explain the elation when we were able to settle into a nice room!
We decided to take the Viazul bus to Trinidad – an experience which we did not repeat as it took some six and a half hours as the bus kept stopping! Actually we were lucky to get on the bus at all, as we arrived at the bus station by taxi at 6:55am for a 7am bus. The bus station is well outside town so we were not able to book the day before – so we just had to turn up and hope. Very Cuba!
Trinidad is a vibrant, colourful city and we took the opportunity to go off the beaten track and explore the local neigbourhood. We were met with bewilderment from the locals. Kids were running up to us asking for money. Local women asked for soap, detergent, and even the clothes off our backs. It was obvious that there is a lack of access to basic commodities in the poorer communities.
So far I haven’t mentioned much about the local Cuban cuisine, mostly beacuse my mother always taught me that if there isn’t anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all.
Our diet revolved mostly on “peso pizza”, ham and cheese sandwiches and bananas. However in Trinidad I was quite hungry and there was seemingly a lack of cheap street food available at 4pm in the afternoon. So we sat down at a nice bar and I ate some food whole Jodie had a quiet beer. All seemed fine until I spent the night driving the porcelain bus, I was so sick that all I could think was how much I wanted to leave the country and get out of there! But after spending a full day in bed, all was better and we were able to head on to Cienfuegos.
Cienfuegos was an unexpected surprise, a small detour on the trek back to La Habana. It was on the way, and a Canadian lady I had sat next to on the bus a few days before had said she really enjoyed it. But it ended up being my favourite stop on the tour! There was a different vibe, a holiday feel, and the locals were much more friendly and less hassling than we had come across in other places.
We decided to drink in the local bar down on the Malecon on the way back from the yacht club, within 30 seconds of being there we were wildly greeted by the local loony (not that we knew it at the time!) who introduced us to his “friends”. That led us to meet two lovely Cuban boys, who convinced us to stay for another beer, which cost less than a dollar for two by the way. People on the table next door generously gave us some Cuban food, croquetes and these funny biscuits which were like Jatz with butter on that had been warmed in the oven!?!
The boys invited us out to the discoteque and after a quick consultation we decided to go for it. They had their bike taxis parked out the front, and offered us a lift home… Although we convinced them to let us have a drive which was greeted by plenty of staring from locals who couldnt believe the gringa was driving and the Cuban was sitting in the back!
Later that night we met again and were taken to the discoteque right on the water. We were proud to be the only gringas in the house. There was a crazy fun vibe and everyone was gong crazy for the usual six Reggaeton tracks I’ve heard all across Central America. The Cuban disco fashion was really something else – matching tracksuits, iridescent lipstick, anything goes!!
In Cuba Valentines day was such a big deal, not like home! All the restaurants were absolutely fill to the gills and there was no way we could get a table without a two hour wait. So heading back to our Casa looking forwars to the two minute noodles we smuggled in our bag from Mexico, we were pleasantly surprised to be sat down by our lovely Cuban mama for chicken and rice, she absolutely insisted. In return we shared our rum which was the least we could do. The best family by far that we stayed with, although they spoke no English, they were so so lovely to us!
After eight amazing days it was time to arrange our classic car ride back to the airport for the next day. Glad to have experienced Cuba but happy to be going back to the relative ease of Mexico (and of course the food!). People watching was the best part, the Cuban people and their spirit make the country the vibrant place that we visited.
It will be interesting to see what changes in Cuba over the coming years as the US sanctions are gradually lifted. But I for one am very much hoping that the cash inflow from the additional tourism will bring more positive benefits than negative ones. Cuba Libre!