Thursday, August 31, 2017


Jan 18th, 2016  3am

I think I've killed her.  I'm watching Sasha die in bed and there isn't much more I can do to help. Her family is going to kill me for this. 
2 days into our next trip and it has already fallen apart.  Maybe I really should bring mom everywhere.  It all started to go wrong 10 hrs earlier.....

With a bunch of time off to use after getting licensed, Sasha and I had made a spontaneous decision to go away again for another 18 days, a month after returning from our trip to Belize.  Cuba had been high on my visit list for a while and so a good deal on an open jaws flight decided us.  Sasha had been to Cuba on a package with her family a few years before but I was determined to see some of it before all the inevitable future changes, especially with the US thaw in relations, so we planned to do some independent travel to half a dozen cities in the north/west half of the country.

We flew into Varadero in the evening, bypassed it completely and spent the first night in Matanzas.  The second day we got a ride in one of the old cars that Cuba is so famous for, all the way to Havana.  It was fun to be in one and at some point during a visit it is almost a tourism requirement but they really aren't that comfortable.  The seats are soft but not exactly ergonomically designed and the pollution and fumes will shave time off your life. 
Old town Havana is great.  It has so much character and area to explore.  Despite and perhaps because of, the smell, pollution, poverty and crumbling architecture it is a very interesting and a rewarding experience to just wander the streets and take it all in.  The main streets have quite a few tourists but often even walking one block over to a parallel street it is completely empty and you can move without bumping into tour groups.  I liked the grand Spanish style of the old town and how little new development has impacted the look and feel of the squares and forts around the harbour.  One doesn't need much of an imagination to fall back into earlier times of several different eras....
So we put in a solid day wandering the streets, drinking in the sights and sounds, dodging tourists, beggars, touts and garbage, dreaming of Havana's glory days as the jewel in Spain's Caribbean crown.

 Old town Havana.

 Everyday cars

 Spanish churches

 Tiny plazas and cafes to relax

 Great architecture

 And streets to wander

A solid day of urban exploration will work up an appetite in even the toughest of travelers and (un)fortunately Cuba has lots of little eateries of temptation.  It's like street food without being quite on the street, usually these numerous local food places are tiny shops or even a single window and a sign with someone making pizzas or other simple fare at rock-bottom prices.  So we ate, and ate again as we saw fit.
Cuban food is notorious for it's poor quality, poor availability and poor hygiene, even in the resorts.  There are countless reports from visitors out there.  I won't comment further other than to say that I can verify that it is all true.  Eating shall henceforth be referred to as "playing Russian Roulette".
So we shot and shot and eventually a bullet struck Sasha fast and hard. That evening she was bad.  I've never seen food poisoning like that.  We were up all night and she was so weak I was really starting to worry.  Fortunately our host (you didn't really think I'd end up as the hero did you?) was a trained, but not practicing, nurse and administered to her as best she was able.  Apparently getting any kind of medicine is next to impossible so we to make do with what we had on hand.
Of our 3 days in Havana, 1 was spent exploring (we never got out of the old town, and there is too much to see in the old town for just one day), 1 in bed as a zombie and the final 1 getting organized to leave and making sure Sasha could stand up on her own.  This experience however set the stage for the food paranoia that continued through the rest of the trip, severely limiting our options.  Even then our stomachs were upset the whole time.  We eventually came to the conclusion that the safest and best food option was not a nicer restaurant but simply to eat with our hosts.
Speaking of hosts, traveling independently in Cuba is one of the stranger systems I've seen though it is in the process of getting less strange (normal is still a long way away).  For us it all boils down to the economy opening up to the private sector and having options.  There were previously 2 currencies (there still are but they are in the process of eliminating one so they were de facto interchangeable and foreigners could now use both).  We can stay in private, licensed homestays (casa particulars) which are quite common and indicated by a little blue anchor symbol near the door which is what we did.  They can be quite nice and are family-run with an extra room or two that they use.  Everything else is shared and generally they will prepare meals for an additional fee.  I'd wondered about all this ahead of time but need not have worried.  It is a little too easy a system.  Everyone knows someone in the next town you are going to.  They call a friend, that person picks you up from the bus station at your next stop or at least knows you are coming.  Even if you didn't have something lined up (and there are times I specifically avoided being passed along so easily) there will be touts or family members there to meet you anyway.  Yes, you pay a little more for everyone's commission and it was frustratingly hard to avoid.  But if you wanted it the easy way, it's right there for the taking.  Rates seem to be uniform everywhere you go.
Which brings us to the getting around part.  There are a couple options, a single government-run bus company which is allowed to transport foreigners (the buses are nice but there is a limited route network and you have to reserve in advance with passport in hand because every independent foreigner wants on the same bus as you do and there really aren't enough options), a very limited train network and taxis.  We were like most, relying on buses and basically having a set route based on where we could get with them.  The first day we took an old car (taxi) from Matanzas to Havana because the buses were sold out when we got to the station and we found another couple with the same problem to split the cost of a ride.
This is a year and a half old already but at the time Obama was normalizing relations with Cuba and tourism was set to receive another huge boost with direct flights to the States and more visitors from the US.  It was bad enough trying to get on a bus.  With the current system and infrastructure they have, Cuba can not handle a massive increase in visitors.  This is ultimately the basis for why we felt we needed to go then.  Never mind the cultural changes that will inevitably occur I'm more practical.  There will be a lag as the country catches up to demand and in that time it will be messy.
After a long day on the bus Sasha and I made it to Vinales.  It is a small town in a beautiful valley famous for growing Cuba's best tobacco.  While cigars and tours related to them are all the rage throughout Cuba this was not our purpose in coming.  Yes it is touristy, but it is also cleaner, quieter and more relaxing than other places we intended to go.  Three days there was just what Sasha needed.  We walked down the road a bit but mostly relaxed and rested and being rained out half the time help assuage our guilt at doing nothing.  It is beautiful there, the valley dotted with fields between limestone rock formations, horse carts trundling past and caves.

 Our balcony view in Vinales

 A common rural sight

 Tobacco farmers

From Vinales we went to Cienfuegos after another long day on the bus.  Cienfuegos is on the southwest coast and the area played a role in the Cuban revolution.  Yet another line of tourism focus if that's your thing.  It wasn't ours.  Like everywhere else, it is looking a little run down these days but it was pleasantly quiet, and felt the least visited of the areas we stayed despite it having a Unesco-listed old town square.  The colonnaded sidewalks and a bit of a seawall also made this town stand out.
 Rooftop breakfast at our guesthouse in Cienfuegos

 Colonnaded streets

 Cienfuegos is pretty quiet...

 The Unesco-listed central square

From Cienfuegos we ended up in another classic car taxi to get to Trinidad, a small and very popular town and one of Cuba's original 7 settlements.  It is the smallest, making it feel more overrun by visitors.  Trinidad is build on a hill with the oldest and most interesting parts of town at the top.  It makes it easy to figure out where to go, just head uphill!  As with everywhere else we went in Cuba, walking one street over, or a little further than everyone else often left us alone.  The squares and churches are small but there is lots of historical character in the architecture combined with modern culture with all the live music wafting down the street from various cafes.  The hassle factor in Trinidad was a little higher than elsewhere but maybe it is worst at the resorts because I was expecting it to be much worse everywhere in general than we actually ever dealt with. Our only beach day was just outside of Trinidad after a quick and crowded bus ride too.  Outside the tourist centre it's a pretty sleepy and run down town of horse carts and dusty streets.

 Trinidad's lower streets

Camaguey was next.  It is more in the middle of the country and the scenery along the highway there is flat and fields of sugarcane.  It is also cattle country.  Despite being the 3rd largest city in the country we found it pretty relaxed and interesting.  It is another one of the original settlements and has a Unesco-listed historic centre.  We enjoyed wandering around and relaxing in the public squares in the evenings watching the families come out to chat and let their kids run around or school groups doing dance presentations.


Our final stop in Cuba was back north in Santa Clara.  Santa Clara has a nice, large central square to people watch in.  It's fame largely derives from being the final battle of the Cuban Revolution and the mausoleum of Che Guevara.  Of course we went to see the mausoleum and monument there (think big Soviet monument and statues with humourless guards).  The Che obsession in Cuba is very, very real.  I can understand it as all the communist governments do a very good job of forming cults around their heroes but the tourists can't seem to get enough either.  The counter-culture worship of Che makes no sense to me but to each their own.  We didn't buy any Che T-shirts but made it home with some great memories and both our lives.....

Che memorial in Santa Clara

 Relaxing in the central plaza