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Cuba part II

The tour dispersed on Christmas day.  There are a few of us staying on in Havana for a couple of days and we decide to meet for dinner.

Don and I have moved to a Casa Particulares, which is about 10 minutes out of Old Havana. I’d describe it as the best house in the worst street.

Amidst crumbling buildings and unkept gardens, we arrive in front of a manicured lawn and a renovated 3 storey house.

We receive a warm welcome in a mix of Spanish, English and sign language.  Our large air-conditioned room comes with a mini bar, already stocked.

Our host, Lucca, and his wife are having Christmas dinner on the rooftop terrace. I think they are disappointed that we are heading out, but only after we finish the beer and BBQ skewers that are thrust into out hands.

From Old Havana to our Casa the taxi had been $10, but returning back for dinner it was only $6, that’s because Lucca hailed it. From then on we negotiate a lot harder.

We meet for Christmas dinner.  Steve and Rachel met us at La Bodeguita Del Medio for Pre-dinner drinks.

The bar claims to be the birthplace of the Mojito which it has been making since 1942; it was also one of Hemingway’s regular haunts.

Yuri had recommended a Paladar for Christmas dinner, even taking us and introducing us to the owner, earlier that day. We’ve been told dinner was $20 which includes a drink.

They did manage to up-sell most of us to the lobster, prawns and fish option for $25.

However, when we got the bill a heated discussion erupted.  We had been charged much more than was expected, a large irreconcilable amount under the umbrella of ‘taxes’.

Eventually we agreed on a price, but we left feeling the locals were trying to take advantage of the tourists.

Day 2:
Boxing day is a lazy sleep in – we didn’t even venture out until the afternoon.

It was too hot to do much and we headed back to our Intrepid hotel and made use of the pool.  Later we met up with Kate, strolled around Old Havana, and had a light dinner overlooking the square.

Day 3:
Our casa is about 5km from Old Havana and we decided it would be a good walk.

On our way, we spot a barber and Don took the opportunity to get a haircut.  The local currency price is the equivalent of $1, but he charged Don $5 (and then probably took the rest of the day off).  Still a bargain for us and he did a great job.

We acquired a friend along our walk, a friendly and informative local who seemed happy to tag-along with us and chat.  Of course, he really wanted money and in the end we gave him $2 just to leave.

Lucca, our host runs an Italian restaurant; he is in fact Italian, married to a Cuban.  We decide to check-out his restaurant which is a few Kms away.

It’s a Friday night and we struggle to hail a taxi.  Eventually we end up in a collectivo (shared) taxi, there are already 2 passengers upfront with the driver and the one in the back sits on a wooden box to make room for us.

We paid $5, which also probably covered everyone in the car.

After a superb dinner, Lucca hails a random car to drop us home for $4.  This is not unusual, drivers will pick up people along the road to make money and especially love to make tourist dollars.

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Day 4:
We are heading out to Vinales for a few days.  It was cheaper to organise a car with a driver than to rent one, plus it was an opportunity to travel around in a classic 1950’s car.

Raul picks us up in a 1953 purple Plymonth with black leather upholstery. I’m not sure it’s the original colour, but it’s been well looked after..

Vinales is about a 2 hour drive, one the way we stop at the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario and lunch with pink flamingos.

Arriving late afternoon we are greeted warmly by Sonia and her neighbours, our Casa Particulare is part of a little community of houses.  We make the assumption, that it’s a family all living together.

From the well kept streetscape of freshly painted houses, manicured lawns and gardens, Vinales is doing well. Always a rich farming district, tourist dollars are also now pouring in.

Rocking chairs are ubiquitous across Cuba. You’ll find at least one on every front porch in Vinales. In the evening, Cuban’s sit and chat to their neighbours.

Our host provides dinner and we pre-ordered Lobster (for something different). There was so much food; chicken soup to start (1 less chicken running around the yard), salad, brown rice and beans, white rice, plantanes and yakka (like a sweet potato) and 1 large lobster each.  All for $8.

Day 5:
Breakfast is again an endless feast, which makes us feel guilty because we simply don’t eat that much. From now on, we know to ask for just coffee and fruit.

Raul drives us to Playa Cayo Jutias, where we spend the day relaxing on a beautiful beach.

Sonia (our host) made reservations that morning for dinner at La Palmetas, the Paladar is renowned for slow cooked pork. Once again dinner is an abundance of food, including a whole pig!  There was no way we even eat even half of it, though it was pretty skinny pig.

Driving back the owners asked if they could get a ride, we thought it was just one of them, but 7 of us pile into the Plymouth!

Day 6:
What better way to see the tobacco plantations than on horseback. Though, what we thought was going to be a 2 hour ride turned into 5!

Our tour meanders through the rich agricultural Valley of Vinales.

We visit a tobacco farm where they explained the process for making cigars, take a blissful swim in the limestone caves and our final stop is a farm for refreshments on the way home.

It was a lovely way to explore the valley – I just don’t need to get on a horse again for a while!

It’s Lobster again for dinner, Don is having chicken (that’s now two less chickens running around).

Chickens in Cuba take free range literally.  They are all over the place.  Walk down the street and you will pass a chicken scratching in the dirt somewhere.  Sit in a bar and you’ll have chicken’s running around your feet.

Order chicken and ….(need I say more).

Having Raul and a car has been nice, but now we are in Vinales, we realise we really don’t need him.

Tomorrow we are going out to the island of Cayo Levisa by bus and ferry. The local bus service is apparently quite good so, we will also catch one back to Havana.

It was a restless sleep tonight, somewhere nearby there is music being pumped out in large decibels.  The heavy disco beat vibrates through the bed.

We seem to encounter a lot of noise through Cuba. Just when the music dies down the roosters wake-up. I’d recommend to anyone intending to visit – bring ear plugs!

Day 7:
Cayo Levisa is a Small island with one hotel on it – we looked into staying a few days but it was booked out.

It’s your typical beautiful tropical island and we had a lovely day, but Playa Juintas was just as nice, if not more so.

The day trip includes a buffet lunch, which was pretty ordinary.  Fish soup followed by baked fish.  The fish was OK, I skipped the rest.

The sides included Pumpkin, first time I’d seen Pumpkin. There was rice and the usual salad of tomato, cucumber and shredded cabbage (I’ve not seen lettuce, it’s always cabbage).

Dessert was guava puree and stewed oranges (that looked like they had been stewing for days).

On the way, the bus had stopped at a house near the ferry port and dropped of a container. On the way home the driver collects his container, now full of fresh Milk.

After a disappointing lunch we have dinner at one of the Trip Advisor recommendations.  It turned out to be the best meal we’ve had in Cuba.  Possibly because it broke the monotony of chicken, pork or fish; even lobster was becoming repetitive.  Instead, we had Lasagna and Duck.

It’s New Year’s eve and we had great intentions of staying up, but fell asleep by 10pm – expecting it to be noisy throughout the night, it was surprisingly quiet.

Day 8:
The bus to Havana leaves at 7:30am.  Sonia is up and kindly makes us coffee, fresh mango juice and some bananas.

In Mexico I had purchased some bee pollen, after being convinced of its vitamin qualities. It looks like yellowish/brown grit, you sprinkle about teaspoon on fruit or cereal each morning.

This morning I tip a generous teaspoon on the plate to dip my banana in.  After a while I notice the pollen seems to be moving on it’s own.  On close inspection I can see little bugs crawling out of it.

Needless to say, that was the end of the pollen.  I’m just hoping those little bugs aren’t making a home in my stomach!

The two hour bus trip takes nearly five, only because people seem to be getting off at random stops along the way, usually in the middle of nowhere.

Walking around Vinales we’d seen a lot of scarecrows in front of people’s homes. We learn that it’s a new years tradition to make effigies that represent all the bad things that have happened during the year.  Burning them will allow the new year to start afresh.

As we leave Vinales, we see the remnants of the burnt effigies.

Just outside of Havana we pull-off to the side of the freeway, an old man on an ancient tractor is waiting.

Out the window I watch something being exchanged.  The elderly man also brings out a thermos of coffee and shares this with the driver. They chat for about 10 minutes before we continue on our journey.

On our horse ride we had met Louisa and Marco, a Portuguese couple (now living in Canada). We kept running into them during our stay in Vinales and they are also on the Bus.

With four nights to fill in, we decided to find a spot by a beach. Louise and Marco had told us about Playa del Estes and the town of Guanabo. They are also heading there, so we share a taxi from the bus depot in Havana.

We decide to try and find a Casa on or near the beach and start walking around.

One dude wants to take us a few blocks back and show us a Casa.  We’ve been warned that people in the street will want to show you a Casa and want a commission. This is exactly what this guy wants.

We enquire at a house just a block back from the beach, our friend is following and tries to claim he is bringing us here.  We make it clear that he is not. Our new landlord, Gabriel shows us the room, well actually it’s more like an apartment with a terrace.  For CUC$25 we take it.

Gabriel was an engineer, now retired. Evidently very handy and always making things. He shows us how the shower works, which I guess he’s rigged-up himself. “Turn the water on first, then flick the fuse, so you don’t get scalded”, he explains. I hope I don’t get electrocuted!

Whilst the water only trickles out of a small pipe coming out of the wall, it’s hot enough to do the job.

Day 9:
The local bus into Havana costs CUC$1 each. Though we later learn that it’s CUP$1. No wonder everyone was happy on the bus, at the value of a CUC to CUP, our $2 paid for the entire bus!

We utilise the Hop-on-off tourist bus to head back out to the Occidental Hotel, (where we stayed with Intrepid). Once again, to make use of their pool and wi-fi for the afternoon.

The bus tour isn’t that exciting, the commentary is limited, which you can hardly hear through the muffled speakers.

The return journey is no more exciting, we actually take the same route back and have no commentary.  Guess that’s what you get for $5.

Day 10:
Beach time for a few hours and then we find the local ‘fast’ food joint; it took nearly an hour to order and get your food – though freshly cooked. All the prices are in National, but they happily accept CUC$.

It’s back into Havana to meet-up with Steve, from our cycling trip.  His Mum Mary, joined him in Cuba and they have been out at Varadero.

Varadero is the Cancun of Cuba, built for the European tourist.  Many of whom fly in, spend a week in an all-inclusive resort (which they never leave) and claim they’ve been to Cuba. Steve confirms this is true.

Outside of a day tour, they didn’t leave the resort, though they seemed to have picked a good one.

Catching-up with people you know is a rarity for us. We enjoy a lovely dinner, sitting outside in Old Havana.

Day 11:
Our last day in Cuba. We spend it lazying on the beach just up the road at Playas del Este.  We run into Louisa and Marco again and they join us.

It becomes clear that we’d arrived just before rush hour, the beach quickly fills with people and it’s a party atmosphere with a Cuban band playing and people dancing all day long.

We can highly recommend staying with Gabriel and Mary. Staying in their Casa Particulare was a true Cuban experience. They are lovely people and we learn’t a lot about Cuba from them.

Gabriel explained that when Casas were first allowed, you had to pay a fee of CUC$350 per room per month. Hence, no one could afford to run a Casa.

The government then changed it to $30 per room, per month. Casa’s charge around $35-$30 per room per night, which means they can now make a reasonable living.

Gabriel speaks about his three children living in the US and 1 in Spain.  Another is doing military service in Cuba and studying Computer Science.

The three children in the US received visas via their mother.  Apparently, she went to a meeting outside Cuba and never returned.  It took 6 years to arrange for the children to be allowed to leave Cuba and live in the USA.  You have to wonder, what life was like to make the decision to leave your children and seek asylum in another country.

Day 12:
After a total of 14 lobsters between us, it’s Hasta la vista Cuba!

It’s been a fascinating place to visit, we will watch with great interest to see how things change as the relationship with the USA develops.

Even as I write this (two months later – OK I’m a little behind).  American’s are already lining up to visit, travel restrictions are relaxing, direct flights are scheduled and the first ferry from Florida is in the works.

Stay: Gabriel and Mary: Calee 470 No.303 e/ 3ra. Y 5ta, Guanabo, La Habana Cuba Tel:537 7963186 Email:gabriel.guanabo@gmail.com

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