Monday, 2 December 2013

12th November, 2013
Touring Cuba, the way we have, reminds me of when I walked across burning coals.

At the time you are so overwhelmed by the experience it is difficult for it all to sink in. It's only once you climb onto the Virgin plane to go home do you start to comprehend what an amazing journey it has been.

Trinidad is a stunning town, a UNESCO world heritage site with the most magnificent buildings, stuck in between a 400 year old heritage and coming to a grinding halt in the '50s. There are no regulated standards for accommodation, which is all priced between 35-40CUC per room (R3-400). You may be lucky and stay in a well-furnished place with nice linen and cutlery or....not. Food has little variety and the menu is stuck on pork, chicken and seafood accompanied by salad (cucumber, tomato, grated cabbage and sometimes avo), rice with black beans, bread and fruit - guavas, papaya and white pineapple. (Be careful as papaya in Cuban has another meaning and you may be asking for female genitals!)

Up to this point we believe we have seen Cuba at it most 'native' with hardly any tourists, which is probably why our red number plates have been drawing such interest. Trinidad on the other hand is seething with tourists, bringing along with them the need to tout, push up prices, litter and a plethora of souvenirs and Chinese crap.

For the seasoned African driver self-driving in Cuba is not difficult. It is run on a horse and pedal power, with a few motorbikes thrown in (side cars are popular in the towns and cities). Between them and pedestrians they have the right of way and they are not intimidated by large trucks. Overtaking on the bumpy roads can be hair-raising. At the onset of our trip it was decided that Rob and Llyris would drive, assigning them the two front seats. Joan and I happily settled in the back and we were frequently 'shushed' when we chirped with any driving instructions or contributions to directions. When the driving became hazardous Joan would embryonically wedge herself between her seat and the door, curling herself into a foetal ball small enough to fit back in her mother's tummy! We knew things were getting bad when Joan started to wedge.

Our hosts were Rita and Pepe. Llyris and Joan stayed with a doctor and his wife about a block away. When we arrived Pepe stupidly handed Llyris the keys to his bike and off she and Rob went on the cobbled road. I am not sure who was more surprised Pepe or me. Couldn't believe he could be so stupid!!

The next day we drove into the Topes de Collantes to hike to the waterfall, along with hundreds of others (sadly). I was under the impression that it was an easy walk. Bah! So not. A 5km round trip, admittedly in a beautiful lush forest, but descending steeply to the falls and a pool. What goes down must come up and if it wasn't for the refreshing swim in the pool at the bottom, I don't think I would have made it back.

We drove down the Peninsula Ancon and swam in a better version of the Caribbean (Santiego de Cuba having been hugely disappointing). It was after 4 but a lone fellow still insisted on hiring out goggles for 3CUC (R30). When he wanted 1CUC for parking we all barked at him! We drove a little further down the beach to a bar and had 'the best mojitos' in town watching the sun set (everyone claims to make ‘The best mojitos).

Dinner was at our house and whilst 10CUC is excellent value the precious lobster was over cooked. Rob and I walked around the buzzing town after dinner following the sound of live music. The square was writhing with tourists fawning over the local talent, desperate to move their salsa hips to the infectious music. 

Robert dining under the brassier - literally!!

10th November, 2013
Cuba is astonishingly clean. Africa could take a lesson or two from this.

We have now been here for a week and starting to learn the ropes. Cuba is an experience and home stays are an eye opener. It is important to either book through someone like Sergio or to get referrals. But question the type of accommodation, although that too can be deceptive. Make sure you take soap, a towel and linen is often a bit shabby (and towels are small). If you forget your flannel or sponge - beware you will spend the rest of the trip washing with a pot scourer (as I have done). We brought bottles with charcoal filters to avoid littering the place with plastic bottles. Most of the time you can drink the water but it has a distinct chalky flavour, and it can sort out the most stubborn bowel. We opted out of breakfast at Santiago's house, he was a little intense and we wanted to flee his crowded apartment. They charged 5CUC (R50) - pricey - and it was a good decision. Cafeterias along the road are cheap, we bought 4 rolls, 2 coffees and fresh pawpaw juice for less than  2CUC (R20). Try and exchange CUCs for local pesos.

Cuba is also astonishingly clean.  There is absolutely no litter anywhere. Horses have sacks to catch manure and although there are no visible dustbins, plastic and papers are not part of the landscape. Africa could take a lesson or two from this.

Road signs are erratic. GPS don't exist and the best way around is to ask locals who are more than willing to run, drive, cycle ahead until to 'arrive at your destination' and be rewarded with a CUC or 2.

We drove 6 hours from Holguin to Moron, staying at Marcel and Roberto's very smart casa. We arrived at lunch time and headed straight for the beach at Coya Coco. Moron is small and not that complicated, but I think we were all brain fried and it became like a Douglas Green ad. We passed the same bunch of loitering youths about 3 times who were eventually rolling on the floor laughing.

To get to Coya Coco you cross over a man-made causeway that's 20kms long. Locals have to get permission to cross and there is a 2CUC toll each way. The beaches are polluted with fully inclusive hotels pumping with overweight tourists. We managed to sneak onto a beach and slip onto a veranda where Alberto snuck us beers and Cuba Libras, surely pocketing the money. He also produced 2 rather average pizzas, for which we were grateful as we were starving. The sea was beautiful, although milky, and the beaches white and narrow.

Dinner was at the casa, another meal of prawns and pork. Marel had invited Miguel, a geography and history professor who now teaches extra English lessons, and thrilled to practise his English on us.

Address: 77 Serafin Sanchez, Moron. 
Hosts: Marel and Roberto.

9th November, 2013.
Living with a Cuban family means just that. Warts and all.

In the morning the neighbours got together and washed our car - making it look as good as new. They were thrilled with the 3CUC we gave them, but maybe it was because they thought we were making the neighbourhood look untidy.
We stopped on the road and had coconuts. A thrill as these were the first we had seen on this tropical island.

 On our way out of SdC we stopped at the garage where we lost our petrol money and gave them a piece of our tourist mind. Glad to get that off our chest we headed out on the 3 hour drive to Holgiun.

Today we got a good taste of what casa particulars are all about. Living with a Cuban family means just that. Warts and all. Limited accommodation, sharing bathrooms, a neighbourhood that seems a little rowdy. No 258 was arranged by Carolina. Our host, Santiago and his lovely wife Consuela are doing their best to be the best. He got a little overpowering and being an engineer was quite fastidious. We had lobster for dinner which was obviously a treat, but came at a price (12CUC/ R120). Perhaps cheap for lobster but each meal is starting to add up and making our eating out budget a little pricey. It is important that you get referrals from a trusted source for your accommodation.
Look out for the Blue Anchor signs to indicate the Casa Particulars.
It is recommended that you get trusted referrals for accommodation.

 We went to the beach at Guardalava, bathing with Cubans of every shape and size (and in various states of undress). The beach is beautiful -white sand and aqua blue water. Just as I piped up about the thrill of no beach boys, what appeared to be a lifesaver, tried to sell us cigars. Carolina had packed our left over dinner in a cardboard box and we sat like stray dogs with our plastic spoon, scooping rice, chicken and prawns from our ‘doggie-box’. Rob joined a collection of beach singers. We couldn’t figure out if they were friends or enemies – exploding periodically, forcing the security guards to make peace. Topless ladies swanned around totally uninhibited. Llyris paraded in her South African flag shorts. No-one recognised her at all!
Llyris eating out of our 'doggie box'.
Flying the flag in Guardalava
Address: apartment 3, 258 N Lopez, 2 do Piso, Holguin. Hosts: Santiago and Consuela.