Sunday, January 31, 2016

Step Back in Time to Cuba - Bonito Cuba!

Cuba - not much is known about the country yet so many people are fascinated by it.  Yes, it's in the Caribbean but no it's not as well known a Caribbean island as say Dominican Republic or Jamaica or Puerto Rico. But it is just as amazingly rich in culture!  Some fast facts and observations about Cuba:
1. They take their beer seriously. Like "drink as water" seriously.  They don't have to drink water but beer is a must! Beer is so cheap and so easily available that they are consumed morning, day and night.  Only 1 EUR a bottle!
Mojito is only 2 - 2.50CUC each!

2. Which brings me to the 2nd point - water is HARD to find and expensive.  No, the so-called Mercado does not sell water - you can always find rum, beer and soft drinks.  No, the café does not sell water.  So stock up on water wherever you can and find them cos you wouldn't know when you will see it! Best places would be the casas you stay in and hotels -- some casas only have 500ml small bottles.  A 1.5L bottle costs minimum 1.5 EUR.
3. Sense of style for the Cuban ladies are pretty amazing.  I got my first taste of Cuba at immigration waiting to be checked (my bags).  The immigration ladies were all dressed in super tight and short uniforms (somehow their uniforms are always super tight, bursting at the seams) and fishnet stockings.  And fully made up.  Walking on the streets, you see the Cuban ladies all fighting to be wearing the skimpiest, tightest, barely there clothings.  And fishnet stockings are a must when in uniforms.
4.  Cubans are born with the music and dance in them.  Once the music starts, every Cuban knows how to dance - salsa or regaetton.  It is SO amazing to watch them just move their hips so naturally to the music!
5.  Being a vegetarian is not hard but your choice is really limited. Like super limited.  For some reasons, vegetables are so hard to get in Cuba, you only get cucumber, tomato and cabbages in salads.  Yuca, which is amazing, is not sold in restaurants (I do not know why!!!) but homes do buy them and cook them.  Or you can have pizza con queso. If you are lucky, you can find aubergine (I had that ONCE!!!)
6.  Learn fucking Spanish! I know this might be hard but it really helps in soo many ways! I wish I knew Spanish but I guess you can't know every language in the world! I still enjoyed very much my time there, but English was really really hard in Cuba.  And when guidebooks say "casa owners speak English" - DO NOT BELIEVE THEM!!! Most of the time, they can't really converse in English so forget about asking for information.
7. You know that Infotour they always advertise in guidebooks or anywhere? They are a scam! Mostly.  They are only interested in selling their tours to you, and providing you with expensive options.  I went to the one in Bayamo and Santiago - Bayamo was by far the most helpful Infotour but still they give you limited information so that you will take the more expensive option - Taxi!  Santiago infotour was a scam! First they keep selling you tours and are not that helpful in providing information, then they give you expensive information - they quoted me double the price for a taxi to Castillo San Pedro.  And when you reject their tour, you can sense their disappointment or lack of interest in you after.  Best way to get info - fellow travelers and casa owners or just the locals.
8. Forget about internet connection. Sure it is getting cheaper, but it is only available at WIFI hotspots and do you really want to spend your time finding a WIFI hotspot just to update your Facebook?  I went 4 weeks without any Internet and Heck I didn't even feel any withdrawal symptoms!  It was so super easy!  Sure it makes it hard to try to arrange things with fellow travelers or find information about a place but that's not really too big of a deal anyway.  Just make sure you set a time and place to meet up, and stock up on information before you leave for Cuba!  Also, you can actually get a 5 or 10 MN calling card to call people in Cuba from the public phones! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't but if you really need to call people in Cuba, that's the cheapest option, or call from your casa.
Geez they aren't really fast facts are they? But all in all, go to Cuba with an open mind and a flexible schedule and you will find it so enjoyable!  The country is so stuck in time that it is pretty amazing how old or vintage the feel is!  I had a plan - sort of, but I knew I wasn't going to follow the plan - well not all of it anyway.  And sure enough, I didn't!  And I'm ok with it, in fact I experienced a lot more in the end! Sure, I didn't get to visit as many places as I would have liked to, but I experienced deeper Cuban culture and the people.  Met some really amazing people and great friends! That's all part and parcel of travelling, especially solo travelling. 
To write up my whole experience would take days, so here I'll give a summary of my experience so that my friends and readers will now consider visiting Cuba!  Before the Americans!!!
When I told my friends I'm going to Cuba, they asked "Why Cuba?", "What is there in Cuba?", "Wah so exotic".  But seriously, Cuba is packed with tourists and backpackers! By tourists, they are the ones who go with package tours (mostly Canadians) who only stick to their all-inclusive resorts and nothing else.  Loads of backpackers, especially Germans! Most people who visit Cuba stick to some pre-defined routes - Western Cuba or Eastern Cuba and obviously Havana!
A good place to start in Havana is to stay in one of the backpacking hostels - Rolando (+53 (07)8799045 at san Miguel No 567) is a good place to bunk if you want to know more fellow travelers and hit up with some to go travel together! There's another backpackers right beside it as well.  For 10CUC per night per bed, it's the cheapest you can find if you are a solo traveller. 
Make sure you change some Moneda Nacional because you will definitely need it when buying food, drinks and small stuff from the streets.  A little goes a LONG LONG way.  I changed 20EUR worth and lasted 4 weeks (1 EUR = 1 CUC = 24 MN).  You can't change EURO direct to MN, so first change to CUC (Convertible pesos).  Accommodation and transport are always paid in CUC. 
Viazul buses are good for long distances and you don't really need to pre-book.  Show up an hour earlier and most of the time they will have a couple seats available for you.  For short distances, collectivo (shared taxis) can be cheaper and more convenient.  You will find them at the Viazul bus stations.
Bayamo village

The river where we spent many hours just chilling
Friends - Sergei, me, David, Camilo, Giovarni
My journey started with an overnighter to Bayamo - purpose to hike Pico Turquino but it ended up being one of the most fun week I had in Cuba! Hooked up with the loco Spanish who have friends in Bayamo and ended up staying with them for a week (or maybe more), and experiencing the real Cuban life, walking into the homes of these amazingly warm Cubans!  Get a local to bring you to the only 18 story building in Bayamo and go up to the rooftop - you get an amazing view of Bayamo from up on top!  It was an awesome experience! We were mini celebrities in small Bayamo where not many tourists visit.  Big fish in small town!  We went partying Cuban style in Bayamo and had one really fun night out till dawn - top moments of the trip and definitely moments to remember!  I was invited to their big New Year Eve fiesta where I helped to roast the pig!!! It was so fun, one of the best memories during the trip and definitely one of the best NYE, if not THE BEST, I've ever had!
Roasting the pig
And of course, I hiked Pico Turquino! It took a while to get there but eventually I made it.  You can take the truck (early morning for direct to Maso or any time for a transfer via Yara) to Maso (in total probably costs you 30-35 MN), and from Maso find a transport up to Santo Domingo.  It's not that easy to find a car willing to take you up the steep slopes but eventually you will, and you probably have to pay like 10CUC for it.  Or if you have more people, a taxi from Bayamo costs 35CUC one way.  If you take a taxi from Bayamo, you can start early and get to Santo Domingo before 9am so as to join the hike on the same day.
The team on Christmas Eve
Pico Turquino
There are 3 casa particulares in Santo Domingo so pretty sure you will have a place to stay.  From Santo Domingo, it is easy to arrange for the hikes.  Pico is usually done in a 2D1N hike (57CUC) although it can be done in 1 day.  Guide is compulsory (it's Cuba) and usually they recommend tipping the guide.  There are 2 routes for Turquino hike - return to Santo Domingo or head to the south coast.  Another hike (4hours) is the Commandancia hike which is a more historical hike where they tell you about the revolution stories.  Meals are included but don't expect good food (it's Cuba afterall), and there are bunk beds at the camp and blankets are available to keep you warm at night.  It does get chilly in the night so bring a jacket and long pants to keep warm.
At the peak, a little disappointed but had to take a photo
Lucky for me, the 2 Austrian boys were driving the south coast to Santiago so I changed my plan again and got a ride with them! The south coast experience was amazing! The coastline is so awesome and the waves were BIG!  There are parts where there are no roads at all, just rocks and sand and we were in a normal car (no 4WD) but we managed.  And a bridge that was half broken - and that bridge is the ONLY road across.  Glad I was lucky enough to do this trip, would not have been possible to hitchhike - didn't see cars going our direction.
The South Coast Road - Look at those waves
The road that is not a road

Colourful Santiago!

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Then there I was in Santiago.  Checked into Casa Nenita - amazing house with a big courtyard and the rooms are super big! The bathroom is as big as the room itself and the owners are these 2 super nice and cute couple!  They only speak Spanish - though their daughter (only saw her once) speaks English.  Met 2 really nice French old ladies who later gave me a free ride back to Bayamo.  After days in Bayamo, being in Santiago was SO DIFFERENT!  The big city, the noise, human traffic, the touts - they can get a bit too much after a while.  So different.  It's easy to walk all the sights in half a day, and just chill the rest of the day.  I went to Castillo San Pedro and it is definitely worth a visit! Only 10km away and a taxi there costs 13-15CUC return (find people to share the cost).  Do it for a sunset tour and it would be awesome. I didn't know and went in the morning, the view was fantastic but would have been even more awesome for sunset.  Heredia street is a street I recommend walking through - lots of music and dancing happening there.  Get your bottle of 7 year rum from the Museo del Ron for 7CUC! Dirt Cheap quality rum! 
Old rundown houses in Santiago
House of Rum!
At Castillo San Pedro, Santiago overlooking the awesome Ocean!
Fresh coconut for free!!!
Riding to Punta Perdiz in Playa Larga
Next stop I head to Playa Larga.  The drive from Playa Giron to there was amaing! The water is so crystal clear and inviting that I wanted to jump straight in!  There are 2 buses from Trinidad to Playa Larga (730am and 4pm).  It was a long long ride from Bayamo but we finally made it to Playa Larga.  The ocean sight woke us up immediately!  David, being David, found a fisherman and we went spearfishing!  Didn't manage to catch our dinner (fish were too small) but we had fun!  Went over to Punta Perdiz for snorkeling and saw the resident giant grouper! And an amazing sunset.  There is a local bus that plies between Playa Larga and Playa Giron (3CUC for the 2 of us).  Scuba diving is also cheap there - 25CUC all inclusive per dive.  And they don't check your experience level! So anything goes.  Their equipments are ok and the groups are BIG!  They have limited dive masters but the group we had that day was almost 30 pax! Luckily there aren't any currents there so the dive is relatively easy.  Make sure you visit Cueva de los Peces and the cave for a swim.  That cave is so cool and a must visit! The swimhole is 70m deep and the cave is beneath that, links to the ocean.  Diving there is not amazing - corals are dead and you don't really see huge schools of fish that amazes you, but it's a good enough decent dive spot.
I don't know how to describe this but it tastes like baby food with cheese - It's Mango with cheese. It's kinda weird
Coast of Playa Larga
Cueva de Los Peces
Cueva de los Peces

Blue blue waters of Playa Larga

Between Playa Larga and Playa Giron, if you want a shopping place or market, go to Playa Giron. Larga is a small fishing village with not much of activities going on, and there are only minimal food places - one deep in the forest (it is very cheap but not that great food), and apparently there are some eateries near the beach area.  But I like Larga for its quietness and tranquility.  Can't say about Giron since I was not there.
Our Green casa with Roger!

We stayed with Roger in Playa larga - he caught us when we got off the bus and we stayed at his place.  His family was wonderful and he is a really nice, friendly guy.  English is barely spoken, though they tried hard and I appreciated it. Casa Mevy y Roger (+53 045 987253 or mobile +53 52478784) or email them at  20CUC per night and he actually helped us arrange the diving!
Taxi party!

And I must highlight another one of the best moments during my trip - the awesome taxi ride from Playa Larga to Havana! We shared a taxi with Kyle, this really cool DJ from Detroit and we were just partying in the taxi with a bottle of rum shared amongst us 3!  By the time we got into Havana, me and David were quite half drunk.  And the night only just begun! First we got a fantastic "pent-house" accommodation - Pedro y Yuya in Centro Habana Calle Perseverancia between San Lazaro and Lagunas (+53 78611334) where we have the whole floor to ourselves, with a great terrace and a private tour up to the very top where we stood by the edge of the building overlooking Havana (only 30CUC per night definitely affordable if you have 2-3 pax)! They have a bathtub too!
Best Pizza!!!!!

Then we had the most awesome pizza in Cuba - smoldered with gouda cheese and onions - it was heavenly! After weeks of eating cheap 10 MN lousy pizzas, I felt like in heaven when I bite into this pizza. Can't remember the name of the place but it is near the malecon and near Lagunas street and near to Perseverancia street.  Then with our tummies filled and still a bit high from rum, we went to Malecon where the waves were crushing and we had a really fun time getting wet by the Malecon before we went back for a good night sleep.
Attack of the Malecon!!!

On our horses!

I then took an impromptu trip to Vinales just because Kyle said she's going horse back riding there! I've always wanted to ride a horse and never rode one so I was sold immediately.  Vinales was never in my plan but for horse back riding, I was in!  We met Christine while taking a taxi and ended up heading there in a group of 3!  Vinales is beautiful - mountainous area with valleys and lots of green, but it was also very touristy.  There are no local shops where you can buy 5 peso pan con queso but they have 1 peso ice cream which was delicious!  The place was so crowded with tourists that it took us forever to find a place to stay the night!  The whole town is literally filled with casa particulares for rent instead of only local housing!  It was a rainy day as well which made any kind of activities difficult. But we had a great next day for horse back riding.  Our horses were small comparatively, mine was called Chewba Chewba and he's a little lazy.  They didn't really gallop much.  It was a nice 3H ride across the valleys and caves with fantastic scenery all round.  Vinales is nice but I thought our 1 day trip was enough to see Vinales as most of the places of interests are far out of Vinales itself and will take at least 1H car ride to reach.  Doesn't make much sense.  So Vinales is more of a base for people to venture out to do activities, or if you have a bike, it would be a nice bike tour out to the other areas.
Ordered Spaghetti with vegetables and ended up getting this plate! Was shocked at first.. Should have known by vegetables they meant these tiny bits not cooked with the pasta
Viewpoint in Vinales

Then we were ready to head back to Havana! This time we stayed at Casa Amanecer with Fidel (the building beside Pedro +53 78665529) 
Quirky Callejon de Hamel

Street of Habana

I love Havana - it is crazy, crowded, noisy, quirky and whimsical.  It's a city with lots of history, culture and artsy artsy places.  A kaleidoscope of culture.  The weather was weird - rainy and gloomy which was unexpected of Cuba, but we managed.  A must visit is Callejon de Hamel - where you get to experience the art culture of Cuba.  The murals, exhibits there are really interesting and done by Salvador who was there when we visited.  Come Sunday, the place is filled with music and dancing - a pity we didn't make Sunday there.  Fusterlandia is another place, probably out of scope of many tourists, but thanks to Kyle we went.  Some guy decided to mosaic his neighbours' houses and turned it into fun wonderland!  Our night ended randomly as well - a random chance meet up with David and friend right at the corner where we stopped a moment to figure out our next destination at 1am in the morning! Who would have thought!  Then we went to Fabrica only to find out it's closed for renovation (for 1 month). How unlucky! But we chanced upon a house party of the higher class Cubans which kinda ended my last night in Cuba pretty great. 

Can't be in Habana without visiting Calle Habana
A great restaurant with reasonable price to visit is Mimosa at Salud 317 between Gervasio and Escobar.  It's Italian with great pizzas and pasta and at prices between 3-6 CUC for each HUGE plate, it is definitely a cheaper place if you are tired of street pizzas.  This place is very popular and gets really crowded during peak hours.
No Fabrica, we have Espacios!
Havana tour in style!
Chinese Food in Havana

Next morning was a half day tour of Old Havana - I liked the vibe.  Obispo is a touristy walking street but I'd say it is still very much worth a visit.  Walk right to the end where you get the coastline view of the opposite.  There is a ferry that goes across but I didn't have the time.  And of course, when in Havana, do what everyone does - take a ride in one of those old luxury convertible down the Malecon! We took the short 30min version for 10CUC each and the experience was surreal!  You could take a longer tour and they take you out to Havana forest - supposedly a really amazing nice place, like the Avatar of Cuba.  But 30mins was good enough for us.  It's the experience that counts. 

Havana has also some nice beaches far out which I didn't have time to explore - would have loved to visit one of them, but I guess maybe next time? If I do go back.  So many undiscovered gems in Cuba that I would love to go back to!