Saturday, September 3, 2016

Day 195 to 196 - Sweet times

Trinidad

Day 195

Today we had signed up to go on a tour of the Valle de los Ingenios, or the Valley of the Sugar Mills. This is a bit amusing (to us anyway) since Australia has a big sugar industry and we have never bothered to visit anything related to it back home. We quickly learnt that Cuba no longer has a sugar industry, since production had declined over the years, and the old equipment couldn't be replaced because of the political situation, so the government ordered that the land be used for more productive crops such as corn.

The tour was interesting as we visited some of the old sugar homesteads and learnt about the old sugar production techniques, based completely on slave labour. Each plantation had a large tower with a huge bell on the top, kind of like a church tower. The overseers would watch the slaves from the towers and ring the bell whenever someone wasn't working hard enough or tried to escape.

After visiting a few sites the tour ended up back in town at the ceramics place we had visited yesterday, so we left it there and walked back to our casa, the guide seemed a little unhappy about it but she didn't stop us.


Day 196

We had no real plans for today, we'd seen much of the town already and it was also really hot. We started with a visit to the cadeca (money changer) to get some more Cuban currency but it was closed, we also tried again later in the day but still no luck.

We paid a visit to the Museum of History and climbed the tower for some nice views of the town, by the time we finished that the streets were almost empty, probably a combination of the heat and it being around lunchtime. We'd noticed in most of Cuba (as well as in Central and South America) that the streets get quiet from around midday, picking up much later in the afternoon, though today in Trinidad it seemed quieter than normal.

We decided to take a cue from the locals and escape the heat, so it was back to our air-conditioned casa for a while before heading out in the evening to enjoy the (slightly) cooler air and the more happening atmosphere.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Day 194 - Empty shops

Cienfuegos to Trinidad

Another classic car for our shared taxi to Trinidad, but this time it was more comfortable with only two in the front. This journey followed the coastline for part of the way so had some great views, and a couple of times we even saw crabs crossing the road ahead of us with their pincers in the air, a bit strange as we were at least a few hundred metres from the ocean, and the crabs were moving away from the ocean - so where were they headed? We arrived into hot and humid Trinidad before midday and checked into our nice casa.


We wandered into town for some lunch and to check out the general area. Figuring out where we could buy water or soft drink wasn't easy, there was no obvious signage, so we had to ask locals where to go, it can be hard to identify what shops are selling and there is also no advertising in Cuba.

Vampires beware!
When we did finally locate a shop there was plenty of beer, some water, and no soft drink in the fridges. There was a stack of soft drink on the floor, so M grabbed a couple of cans and took them up to the counter, where he was told that they weren't for sale. The shops are very hit and miss as to what you will find, it seems that most basic household goods are sold door to door by people on bikes, for example there is the onion/garlic seller, the fish seller, the toilet paper seller, the fruit seller etc. This makes it a bit difficult for gringos like us to buy things that we can't find in the half-empty shops.

We explored the old city area for a while, checked out the souvenir stalls (mainly Havana Club rum, Che Guevara and classic car related merchandise - pretty much the same stuff that we'd seen in the other cities), then wandered up to Santa Ana plaza and on to visit a ceramic factory we had read about, where an old man who'd worked there since he was a kid unlocked the gate and gave us a private tour of the place, showing us where the pottery is made by hand on the wheel, and how the clay is sourced locally.


That evening as the sun went down we headed to Plaza Mayor, which was busy by now with a crowd of people enjoying a drink while listening to the local Cuban musicians.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Day 193 - The sun is out!

Cienfuegos

We awoke to blue skies and Cienfuegos suddenly started to look more inviting. First order of business was sorting out our onward travel, so we walked to the bus station. On the way the streets were full of people going about their daily business, the taxi service for the locals was horses and carts, there were people selling all sorts of things from the back of their bike, which along with those on electric scooters created a strange mix of old and new. There weren't quite as many of the classic cars that we'd seen in other towns, but they were still around.


At the bus station the ticket office was closed. The timetable posted on the wall indicated that the bus didn't leave until the afternoon, so as we wanted to get away earlier we arranged spots in a shared taxi with a man standing out the front - the things you do in foreign countries that you wouldn't even consider at home, for all we know the guy could have been a scam artist or serial killer. However no money had changed hands at this point so we thought we were pretty safe.

We then walked all the way along the Malecon to Punta Gorda, with its mixture of architectural styles, ranging from grand French style buildings to a 1950s style American hotel next door to another building straight out of the Arabian Nights. As we walked, in the distance we could see the dome of the unfinished nuclear power plant, which is 90% complete but with the breakup of the Soviet Union who were fundng the construction was never completed.


The yacht club had the best spot on the bay and was full of bus loads of day trippers there for a buffet lunch, if you're looking for a free lunch it would be very easy to blend in and join the queue. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the town centre. we could have spent less time here as in the 24 hours we'd been here we'd pretty much seen all there is to see, save for a couple of small museums.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Day 192 - Who'll stop the rain?

Viñales to Cienfuegos

We woke up at 6am with rain still falling, so we had to drag our luggage to the bus terminal in the dark and wet. It continued to rain throughout our trip to Cienfuegos, but at least the bus was comfortable and the road was good. It was surprising how little traffic there was, it was almost as if only tourist vehicles were allowed on the road, though we did see the occasional car, truck, and horse & cart.

We had hoped that we could put some distance between ourselves and the rain, but it was still going when we arrived in Cienfuegos. By late afternoon it had slowed down a bit, so we braved the elements and went for a wander around town with our umbrellas handy. The city was pretty deserted and a bit drab looking, and after three days of heat in Havana followed by two days of almost constant rain we were feeling a bit down about Cuba, wondering if our trip was turning into a washout. We suppose this might be payback for thinking we could get away with travelling in the wet season, we'd been pretty lucky so far with only one bad day in Costa Rica.

Having said all that, the city did look quite nice, the French influence showing in the buildings around the main square and along the Prado, which is the main street that follows the edge of the bay. Hopefully the weather would improve tomorrow!


The prices in Cuba are generally quite cheap, even the really nice places we'd been booking to stay in were AU$30-40 a night. Restaurant prices were also good, even at "tourist" restaurants we'd seen cocktails for 2CUC, amd only 3-4CUC for some main courses. It may be expensive to get to Cuba but once you're there you can have a pretty cheap holiday, though transport between towns can be expensive if you stick to the tourist transport (like we did).


Monday, August 29, 2016

Day 191 - Washed out and smoked out

Viñales

All night we could hear rain bucketing down and it was still falling heavily when we went for breakfast around 9am. We were told that our walking tour of the tobacco and coffee farms had been cancelled, but we could still pay a visit to the tobacco farm as it was close to town. We asked our host again about our transport the next day, whether it was arranged, when we would be picked up, and what the cost would be, and were told it would be sorted today.

We were picked up by a small taxi (not a "classic" car this time), and were told that our guide would be the boyfriend of the host's daughter, who didn't speak English .... in fact he didn't speak much at all. We were dropped off a couple of kilometres out of town and the end of a very waterlogged driveway, which had a pretty constant stream of water flowing down and out onto the road. We followed our "guide" a fair way along a track clogged with water and a rich, thick red mud. There was no way a car could have gone up there, we had enough trouble walking.

We arrived wet and muddy at a shed where a few tobacco farmers were sitting, but they didn't seem to pleased to see us, it was apparent that they weren't expecting us (or anybody else). There was a bit of discussion between the boyfriend and the "boss" farmer, after which we were then taken into the drying shed. The farmer launched into his  spiel (in Spanish) on the tobacco growing and drying process, which he directed solely at M, K's existence was almost ignored, which is par the for the course in much of South and Central America - too bad K is the one that understands Spanish! At the end of the talk we were given the chance to puff on a cigar, dipped in honey to supposedly soften the harshness of the smoke. Even then one puff was more than enough. Then there was a pretty low key sales pitch for us to buy some cigars. In Australia only individually wrapped cigars can be brought in, and in very limited quantities, but these were straight from the farm, so we declined. After that it was back along the trail in the rain (the stream was practically a river by this stage). We were disappointed that we hadn't really got to see that much, can't do much about the weather though.

Back at the casa we spent some time cleaning our shoes, and asked again about our transport, still no info. Into town for lunch then, including some pina coladas, it was still raining so it looked like we wouldn't be doing much else today. At our lunch place they had a system where a bottle of rum is left on your table with your drink so you can add it as much as you like to your pina colada, we were very responsible of course - adding rum at least three more times as we took sips from our drink.


After lunch and some more time wandering around town in the rain we went back to our casa to finalise our transport details, but nothing had been arranged and there was just a vague indication that it would cost us 45CUC per person and that we might leave at 10am.  We decided at this point we'd take matters into our own hands. In town we found that a shared taxi was 35CUC each, but we opted for the 7am bus at 32CUC for the 7 hour trip. Sure it left early and wasn't door to door, but we knew that the bus would be much more comfortable than the shared taxi we had taken to get to Viñales. While we were in the queue the lady from the casa found us and finally gave us the taxi info, but at her price of 40CUC it just wasn't worth it, we didn't see any point in giving the casa any more money than we had to, as it was obvious they were skimming off the top on the taxi fares.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Day 190 - Dinosaurs and cavemen

Havana to Viñales

We were collected from our apartment at 12pm, only about 30 minutes late for our shared taxi to Viñales. It was an old "classic" car, with bench seats. There were already three Austrians in the back, so we had to squeeze into the front seat with the driver. The driver was a big guy though, meaning we were really crunched in, with K needing to put her shoulder under M's to get some comfort.

We arrived in Viñales around 3pm and checked in for our first stay at a Casa Particulare. These are the most common accommodation in Cuba, at home we'd probably call them B&Bs, they're basically spare rooms in people's homes with an ensuite and air-conditioning, with breakfast and dinner available but at an additional cost.

Home sweet home
The host and her English speaking daughter were very quick to ask if we wanted breakfast and 
dinner, and we sort of felt obligated and also wanted to try out some Cuban home cooking so we agreed. They also gave us an overview of the sightseeing options that were available, so we decided to do a walking tour the next day to some nearby tobacco and coffee plantations. We had been told that the casas will also arrange ongoing transportation, so we requested that of the host as well.

We walked the couple of blocks into town and were just in time for the last trip for the day of the local hop-on/hop-off bus tour. The highlights were the Los Jazmines hotel, near the edge of an escarpment with some great views of the valley and mountains around town, and the Mural de la Prehistoria, a huge and quite hideous painting on a rock wall, with badly drawn dinosaurs alongside primitive looking human beings, in blue, green, red and yellow paint. Not sure whose idea it was to deface the rock wall like this, but from our perspective they should have kept the paint to brighten up their house exteriors....


The home cooked dinner at our casa was roast chicken with rice and beans, acceptable but uninspiring. It was also much more expensive at 10CUC per person than the restaurant dinners we'd had in Havana - tomorrow we'll eat out! (We have since heard you can negotiate with your casa over the price of dinner, if only we'd known).

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Day 187 to Day 189 - Havana a great time

Havana

Day 187

Where we are staying in the suburb of Vedado isn't too far from the Havana Libre hotel (the former Hilton) where Fidel Castro first stayed when he entered Havana.

We caught the open topped tourist bus from there, and hopped off at Central Park where there were heaps of classic cars parked, all there as "taxis" for the tourists, We watched the salsa dancing for a while, then then walked down Calle Obispo, the "main" street with lots of restaurants and shops. We knew we'd found an internet shop when we saw the long queue down the street. In Cuba the internet is provided via a card, 2 CUC for an hour (1 CUC = US$1), which you then use at a wifi hotspot - these are easy to tell by the large numbers of people staring at their phones. We joined the queue and waited about 30 minutes before giving up, based on the rate we calculated it would be another hour or so before the eight people in front of us had their turn.

After wandering through town we visited the Museum of the Revolution. They say the winners get to write the history, so of course this was all told from the view of Castro, with lots of anti-US commentary interspersed in the exhibits and photos related to the Cuban revolution.


After that we hopped back on the bus and took the ride away from the city centre and along the waterfront, where wasn't much hopping on or off though, in the next two hours it only stopped about three times. It was a great way to see Havana, although very hot in the scorching heat, but at least we didn't have to walk around in it.


Back at Central Park the bus did a short loop along the Malecon in the other direction, giving us a view of the old city and the waterfront. We had met two English girls on the bus earlier in the day, we saw them again on the bus in the afternoon and they told us of their adventures - they'd been "befriended" by a scam artist who convinced them he was the son of the owner of the casa they were staying in. By the time he'd finished with them, he and his accomplices in the bar they had been taken to (who looked like normal patrons but were all apparently in on the scam) had extracted about $200 from them. They finished up their story by adding "we're not telling our parents"!

Day 188

Our nice little Airbnb has a kitchen so we decided to check out the shopping options that our host Yuri had shown us. First was the "farmers market" -   a couple of small shopfronts with hanging slabs of meat covered in flies, and unidentifiable mounds of vegetables in the corner. Next stop was the supermarket where M was told to leave, since he was carrying a bag. The shelves there were worse than what we'd seen on Easter Island - various cans of odds and ends, none of which appealed to us (canned beans for dinner anyone?). There was plenty of alcohol though (not sure what that says about Cuban priorities), perhaps that's what they thought we might shoplift? We had been told it is hard buying food in Cuba, and from what we'd seen we can definitely agree. The restaurants we'd seen seemed to have a reasonable selection of meals, so the food must be out there somewhere, but perhaps not generally available from shops?


We also had to arrange our ongoing travel out of Havana, our hosts weren't really able to help us so we ended up visiting one of larger Casa Particulares in the old city, where the owner helped us get a spot in a shared taxi to Viñales.

We then had lunch at the famous Sloppy Joes, which was a really popular and cheap bar (and apparently also quite dirty, hence the name "sloppy") back in the early to mid 20th century, followed by a visit to the Hotel Nacional for mojitos in a nice spot with a view of the ocean.


Day 189

We took a taxi to the San Jose market in the old city down by the waterfront, disappointingly though it all seemed to be mass produced kitsch (including hundreds of paintings of classic cars in front of old buildings). We then revisited the casa we'd booked our shared taxi through to pay and confirm the pickup time.

By this time it was getting very hot, so it was back to the airconditioned comfort of Sloppy Joes for lunch. We finished the afternoon with a visit to the Museo de la Ciudad which was housed in an old home complete with baroque European furniture and ornaments, as well as the now familiar photos and stories of Fidel Castro and his revolution, followed by a stop at Plaza Vieja (the Old Square).


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Day 186 - Take me to the August sun in Cuba

Cancun (Mexico) to Havana (Cuba)

We returned our rental car to the airport, being very careful not to exceed the 70kph speed limit. Too bad none of the other drivers on the road were as conscious of the road rules as we now were, we were by far the slowest car on the road! Where was Constable Hernandez now .... probably at home sipping on tequilas bought with his ill gotten gains.

We joined the Havana queue at the Interjet desk and waited while the passengers were slowly checked in, when it was finally our turn we were asked for our Cuban visas. We thought we would get them at the check-in desk, but we had to go to different desk - thanks for letting us know guys, maybe you could consider putting up a sign? M went to sort the visas while K waited at the desk, 500 pesos later we had our visas and were ready to check in to our flight.

In the queue with us were lots of Cubans, bringing in all sorts of luggage and equipment, it was like a freight terminal, not a passenger terminal. Air conditioners and rubber tyres seeming to be the most popular.

The flight left on time and was only an hour or so. Getting through immigration at the other end was easy, there was a short wait for our luggage but it wasn't too bad, and customs was a breeze. We were met by Yuri from our hostal, who took us and our luggage to a bright purple 1959 Ford which we rode into town in, arriving in the suburb of Vedado about 40 minutes later.


Our hostal was an apartment in an old building, it looked like the rest of the housing in the block was occupied by locals, but this hostal was very nicely decorated, with lounge, kitchen and washing machine - perfect! Yuri showed us around the neighborhood, including where we could change money and then left us to our own devices.

We caught a taxi into the old town Havana Vieja about a 10 minute drive away, where we met Ken and Cally, a Tasmanian couple who write the blog at dodgyknees.com, who have been on a similar trip to us though in a slightly different order, so we had been exchanging information for a while. We had a nice dinner (including more cheap lobster for K), as we traded travel hints and stories about Cuba and Central America.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Day 185 - Highway robbery!

Cancun

We hired a car for the day so we could go to Tulum, which we had missed last time we were in Mexico, and we timed the 24 hour rental so we could use the car to get to the airport the next day.

We collected the car around 10am, then paid another visit to the ATM to withdraw even more cash for our Cuba trip, and convert the withdrawn pesos to Euros. We were on our way back to our hotel when we were pulled over by the police. We were supposedly speeding and liable for a hefty fine (though we were going slower than the buses and other cars), but if we paid (bribed) the police around $50 we could continue on our way, and not have to visit to the police station the next day. As we weren't really sure of our options we paid up, but really felt like we'd been robbed. After looking into it all later, it seems this sort of thing happens a lot, and what we should have done was just called their bluff and opted for the official fine, apparently if you can string the discussion along for long enough they realise they won't get any bribe money and let you off so they can chase down another poor victim.


Subdued by the second bribe of our life (the other was on our trip to Goa), we drove to Tulum to check out the ruins on the edge of the ocean, with beautiful views to the ocean and a nice little (and crowded) beach. The site is quite small and walled on two sides, with the ocean acting as a third wall. The ocean was a brilliant view and very inviting, as it was also very hot.


After Tulum we drove to Playa del Carmen. We had visited the area on our last trip to Mexico but we were still surprised at how happening and different it was to Cancun. The beach in Cancun is beautiful, whereas the Playa del Carmen beach is not so nice, but the town has a very different feel to Cancun, with lots of restaurants and people out and about. In retrospect we should have spent our time here rather than in Cancun, Playa del Carmen is more our style.

Playa del Carmen

Monday, August 22, 2016

Day 183 to 184 - I need more cash, don't cancel my card!

Cancun

We were staying in the hotel zone in Cancun, a stretch which consists of shoulder to shoulder resorts and hotels along the length of the peninsula, but with gorgeous beaches and views.

K was still heavily restricted, her leg and back are badly bruised, with the bruising and swelling spreading to her ankle, it would be difficult to imagine a leg more swollen and bruised without breaking a bone! Fortunately there is a pretty good bus system in Cancun, we never had to wait more than a minute for a bus to come by, and there are so many that they seem to race each other down the road, overtaking each other as they appear to compete to collect the most passengers, we were wondering if they get paid according to how many passengers they have.

Fresh lobster at the supermarket!

We spent some time on our travel arrangements to Cuba, including withdrawing cash and getting it changed into Euros. We were told that Euros are the way to go as there is a 10% hit on changing from US dollars in Cuba. There are some ATMs in Cuba, but our travel/credit cards (Citibank and 28 Degreess) are from American owned companies, so they won't work in Cuba at all. We ended up making multiple trips to the ATM over a few days to get what we needed, and at one stage there was a frantic call to Australia to one bank as they had blocked one of the cards over what appeared to be a dubious transaction.

We were also able to book our accommodation in Cuba via Airbnb as many of the "Casa Particulares" are listed along with photos and reviews. One big advantage of Airbnb here was that as everything is paid for over the internet, so at least accommodation was something we didn't need to bring cash for.


It wasn't all travel preparation though, the ocean looked very inviting so we did spend a little bit of time on the beach, the beach is so long and wide that it wasn't crowded at all, and the water was the perfect temperature for a bit of swimming.