There is that moment at which you decide together that it might be fun to go on a long trip, and then there is the morning at which you are actually heading to Schiphol airport to catch your flight to Cuba. And so it begun. Now we have been here for almost three weeks and we can tell you that it has definitely been an experience, Cuba is everything that you may expect and more. Simply walking through the streets is a true joy. People play music at every other corner, richly colored and beautifully shaped houses and cars decorate the streets, and Cuban people relax in their rocking chairs on their porches or use their creativity for finding ways to make a living.
Next to this blog that you are about to continue reading (I hope), you can also follow me on Instagram, where I will place updates more frequently. Additionally, I downloaded a very cool application called Polarsteps, which follows me around by GPS and gives a nice insight of where we are at. Enjoy, and remember, feedback is always welcome!
We are not entirely sure whether it feels like a very long or short while ago since we arrived at Havana airport without much of a clue of what to expect. After being escorted to the city center by our taxi (who was very happy to tell us all about Cuba despite the language barrier) we arrived at our Casa Particular. In Cuba you don’t stay at hostels as you normally would when travelling on a budget, you stay at a Casas Particular; people’s homes, that is. Cubans are allowed to rent out any spare rooms that they might have, and we as visitors happily make use of this. The hosts are not all educated in the science of hospitality, but we found that the people here do their utmost best to make you feel comfortable. Normally you would pay $15-$25 a night, and for $5 extra per person you will get a delicious breakfast containing of bread, eggs, cheese, fresh juice and delicious fresh fruits (mango, pineapple papaya and some fruit of which the name we still haven’t discovered, mostly).
Without any prior knowledge of Havana and without any map, we set out to explore the city the next morning. We started off walking in the direction which seemed to be the center, and then started using our thereafter often used “oh, that street looks fun” strategy. It may not be the most efficient in terms of checking off highlights, but we liked it very much as it allows you to just wander around and walk into the unexpected. Our first objective was to find a way to exchange some currency, and there we learned our first lesson about Cuba; never just expect something to go easily. It took a great amount of time to find an international bank, and then we still had to stand in line for quite a while before we got our money, but we got it! After two hours of strolling around the city we were finally able to get our well deserved refreshments at one of the Peso shops. As long as you are not in a touristy area, there are Peso shops everywhere, from which you can buy cheap drinks and food. What do I mean with Peso shops? Cuba has two currencies, the CUP/Peso which is mostly used by the locals and the CUC which is meant for tourists. The idea in this is that tourists are charged way more for similar services such as transport, and that locals get limited access to certain services which are available to tourists. However, it is possible to get some Pesos at the bank and if you manage to find the right places you will discover that your money will go a much longer way. For example, at a Peso place it is possible to get pizza for less than a dollar, sodas for 5 cents and freshly baked bread for 15 cents.
When walking through Havana, you really get the feeling that you have moved back in time. We walked right from El Capitolio, up to the fortress at the sea where we enjoyed a great view on the city’s skyline. The old-timers in the street are a beautiful sight, but as they are over 50 years old (which also seems to be the case for the buses) they pollute the city quite a bit. The fresh sea breeze was therefore more than welcome. Arriving at Habana Vieja afterwards (Old Havana), we were amazed by the great atmosphere. People are playing music everywhere, there are nice little squares and parks where people are relaxing, and the architecture and the shapes and colors of the buildings are just beautiful. Everywhere throughout the city (and the rest of the country) you’ll find reminders of the revolution and of the initiators of the revolution, Che Guevera and Fidel Castro. Placa del Revolution is a good example of this.
On our last evening in Havana, it happened to be Carnaval! How lucky we felt! Decorated cars and dancers paraded the streets, and the whole area around it was packed with places where you could drink, eat and dance. Where we would be jumping around drunk with Carnaval, here the people are all salsa dancing on the streets. We did have a start at the practice before our trip, but we were not entirely comfortable with revealing our skills to the public just yet.
Our taxi driver from the airport recommended us to go to Viñales, and as we didn’t really know where else to go we thought; why not. Always trust the taxi drivers. There are a number of ways to get around the country, but for tourists this is limited to taxi’s and the Viazul. The bus (Viazul) being fully booked, the only option for us to get to Viñales was by shared taxi. To our surprise, we got picked up by a classic American old-timer, which wasn’t too bad at all. It seems to be the case that either the government or the people themselves try to get everyone a job, a good example of this is our taxi having two drivers for the 2-3 hour ride. We shared the cab with a couple which seemed to be more than well prepared, having dozens of books and papers with them which would guide them through their adventure, and they were happy to give us a few tips. The taxi driver told us that he had a friend who had a friend who had a cool place for us to sleep, which seems to be the ordinary way around here, so we went to check it out. He brought us to a bright pink sort of bungalow which turned out to be home to a cowboy/Tabaco farmer and his wife, and they had a very nice room for us. The house had a nice terrace with a beautiful view on the mountains of Viñales. Carlos (the cowboy) told us all about what we could do in the area, and we decided to go on a horseriding trip together with him. We woke up early the next morning, had a delicious breakfast and went off. For nearly five hours our horses marched us through the stunning valley of the national park. We rode by traditional Cuban houses, Tabaco farms, bamboo forests, a little lake where we had a swim, and a cool wall painting which was created after the revolution. I have to take back my earlier statement implying that horse riding doesn’t cost any effort, but it was great to experience the land in such a way. We ended the evening with a delicious glass of Cuban rum, which was offered to us by our hosts; who are we to decline such a generous offer.
We were actually planning to travel further west, but this seemed to be impossible with the budget that we strive to live by, as there are only a few hotels and no casas or other cheap accommodation. We therefore decided to head for Cienfuegos. As we failed to book a bus as it was fully booked (again) and because we more then enjoyed our farm life in Viñales, we decided to lengthen our stay with a few more days. Two of these extra days we spend relaxing on the terrace, playing card games and reading books, mostly. The other, we decided to pay a visit to a beach on a little island just of the coast, Cayo Jutías. Upon arrival, we were more than happy with this decision. White sand, blue water, palm trees. Around lunch time we had some food at the one and only restaurant at the beach where the local boy band was performing (surprisingly well).
After a bus ride of about 8 hours, we arrived in Cienfuegos. We didn’t have an accommodation yet, but there were a bunch of locals waiting for us at the bus station offering casas. One woman seemed to be very convinced that we would be the perfect match for her casa; and in hindsight, I would say that we agree with her. We got a nice apartment of two floors for only $15 a night, which is a pretty good deal. As it was quite late already, we kept it to a walk through a little park and had some food at a pier where they created a sort of outdoor cinema with music videos. The day after, we walked through most of the rest of the city. On the way back, we took a bicycle taxi as the heat was becoming a bit too much for us after such a long day of walking, but not without feeling bad for the driver. Our last day in Cienfuegos, we chilled at a little beach just outside of town which seemed to be kept from the tourists. It wasn’t marked on the map that we got, the bay itself was not even on the map that I keep on my phone. We happened to walk into it the day before and therefore decided to go there, and we had quite a nice day between the Cubans.
Although we didn’t do much prior research, I knew beforehand that Trinidad would be a special place as the Cubans always seemed to be lighting up when we asked about it. We found that Trinidad is indeed a very pretty village; basically every glance could be turned into a beautiful painting. The village is located on a hill, and this causes for quite a spectacular sight when it starts to rain, as massive rivers suddenly start flowing through the street. And raining it definitely did during the days we spend in Trinidad. Somehow, we actually enjoyed these rainy days as it gives something extra when for example having dinner at a restaurant while a band is playing music for you. We had very good intentions of visiting the museum of the municipality’s history, but Cubans find it necessary to close down museums when it starts to rain. A bit counterintuitive in our opinions. Luckily, we did also have some hours in which we could admire Trinidad with some sun over our heads, but the museums remained closed.
We were told that there was a place in a cave where it was possible to have some drinks. We didn’t expect to much of it, but it turned out to be pretty awesome. We found the entrance after a steep climb uphill and it seemed to be that people from the whole region turned up to pay a visit to this place. A long stairway down led us to a massive cave, which was turned into a great club. We didn’t expect to find this in a village as Trinidad.
Our initial idea was to travel further east, but we decided not to do so for several reasons. For one, it would either take us a massive amount of extra time to travel all the way to Santiago/Baracoa or it would cost us a lot of money to fly from there to Havana. Next to that, an increasing desire to start discovering Mexico couldn’t be resisted. We decided to go to Varadero and enjoy a few days relaxing at the beach. The beach was beautiful, and our casa was pretty chill as well, so for all we could expect it turned out well. The first day, we decided to buy ourselves some of the Cuban rum (which is crazily cheap over here) and play some card games. We had a walk through town and ended up at a place with a lot of music and dancing, and when the venue closed, two guys who brought along their guitars took over. Great evening! After one more day of enjoying the beach life, we headed towards the airport.
Cuba has absolutely been a great experience. If you ever have the chance to visit this place, definitely do it. And preferably before it loses some of its charms, although I surely hope that it will never loose its wonderful people. A great start of our adventure, and now its time to head for Cancun, Mexico.