Monday, 29 May 2017

15 Things to know about Cuba before you go

How do I look?
  Here are a few things I learned while I was in Cuba. I hope they will be helpful if you are planning a trip to there. They are in no particular order.



* Cuba is an extremely poor country so make sure you tip people if you take their photo or for any service.  This is how many people make their living and even a small tip can make a huge difference when your monthly pay is just $25US

* Take small gifts to give away, especially soaps and shampoos.  This is what we were asked for most of all. Also take clean, tidy used clothes to give away.  They will be treasured and shared out among family or village members.
 

* Don't eat beef, it is rare and expensive and often really unpleasant.  I made the mistake of ordering beef on one occasion and it was as tough as the sole of a shoe.  On the other hand, chicken, pork and crayfish or lobster are freely available. Note: Cattle are precious in Cuba because they are needed to work.  Cubans receive a longer jail term for killing a cow than for killing a person. 

*  Don't expect milk or cheese in Cuba.  Milk supply is extremely limited and, by law, only available to children, the ill and the elderly.  You will annoy and/or embarrass if you ask for it.
Cattle are precious  farm workers
* Take all your required medicine with you.  Because of the cost of mainstream drugs Cubans rely mostly on alternative medicines.  You will find it extremely difficult to buy western medicines and if you can find them they are very expensive.  Despite this, or, who knows, because of this, Cubans have an average lifespan of 82...not bad.

Cuban tourist bus
* Tourist bus services are good in Cuba.  The government owned companies travel to most tourist destinations in comfortable air conditioned coaches although it is a good idea to book ahead.  Hire cars are expensive and dearer than taxis in most instances.  Trains are slow and old and have extremely poor toilet facilities. Once out of the big cities and towns most locals use a horse and cart.

* Cubans are reluctant to discuss politics.  They may not agree with their government but do not want to be critical for obvious reasons. It is better to stay off the subject.

*  Casa Particulares, what we in New Zealand call a Home Stay, are the best bet for accommodation.  They are spotlessly clean, offer fantastic hospitality and immerse you in a true Cuban experience.
Casa Particulares in Vinales
* Canadian dollars or Euros are the easiest currencies to convert. US dollars are harder to change. Credit cards are not widely accepted. Make sure you carry small notes as many businesses and services do not carry enough cash to give change for larger notes.  Cuba has two currencies, the CUC$ which is the currency all tourists use, and the peso.  The peso is mainly used by small traders such as fruit stall holders etc although they will also accept CUC.    I had no need of peso while I was in Cuba.  

* Internet services are poor and unreliable in Cuba but you can buy an internet card which will give you a limited amount of computing time.  Large hotels and some city squares are the best places to connect.  Cubans are very rarely seen on either the internet or cell phones.  Apart from the fact that the service is poor, our guide told us he much preferred to communicate with people face to face, it is the Cuban way.

Let's dance - any place, any time
* The Cubans love music and dance and are very tactile and sexy.   They have an enormous joie de vivre and are happy to dance with anyone just to dance.  It doesn't always mean what you may think it means so enjoy the experience while maintaining a street wise awareness. I assure you, you will have a wonderful time.

 * Only drink bottled water and be wary of ice in your drinks. Oh, and rum is very, very cheap.

 * Always carry toilet paper and anti septic hand wash. Be aware that toilet paper is not flushed in Cuba but placed in a bin alongside the toilet.  Do not flush it or you will clog the primitive sewerage system and make life difficult for the locals.  Toilet paper is not usually provided.

 * Cuba's infrastructure is crumbling in many instances so don't expect things to always be in working order, be patient, be accepting and realise you are there for just a short time but this is what the locals live with daily.

* The Cubans are fantastic people, get to know them, to enjoy them and throw yourself into the whole experience of Cuba, you won't regret it. 


  I loved this wonderful country, there was something about Cuba that really got into my soul.    If I got the chance I would love to go back and see the parts I missed and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  Any additional ideas or thoughts you may have are very welcome in the comments section at the bottom.




Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Cuba - Back to Havana with some history along the way.

Very reluctantly we said goodbye to the lovely town of Trinidad and boarded the bus for the return trip to Havana. Luckily there was to be plenty of interest, and a couple of history lessons, along the way. 
The attractive tower with an ugly history



Our first stop, about an hour from Trinidad, was at Manaca Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios, now a UNESCO world heritage site for its beautiful natural scenery, the ruins of sugar mills and slaves quarters and the fading, elegant haciendas of the early mill owners.   It was from the dozens of sugar cane plantations in this valley that Trinidad gained most of its wealth in the 19th century.  There is still some sugar cane grown here however most of the mills were destroyed in the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American war of 1895 to 1898. Plantation owners moved to other parts of Cuba but over time the sugar industry has declined and is now merely a shadow of what it once was.


View from the tower of the linen market and slave owner's hacienda


The Manaca Iznaga plantation was bought by Pedro Iznaga in 1795, a ruthless man he became extremely wealthy through slave trafficking. Today the plantation is a peaceful place.  A linen market, displaying exquisite hand embroidered, snowy white, table cloths, clothing and bed linen, lines the entry to the spectacular 44 metre high tower which overlooks the estate. We climbed the tower to drink in the panoramic views over the surrounding countryside whilst learning of its ugly history as a watchtower to oversee the plantation slaves, make sure they worked hard and didn't escape. Sobering to say the least.


The linen is  all hand embroidered.  I bought beautiful dresses for my grand daughters and a snowy white  table cloth
  After pondering the terrible injustices Iznaga's slaves suffered, and taking a quick stroll through his cool, spacious mansion, now containing a restaurant,  we boarded the bus to continue to our next destination, Santa Clara and Ernesto Che Guevera's tomb. As I have mentioned before, all tourism in Cuba is government owned and operated so it came as no surprise that we were shown a documentary on the life and 'heroic' deeds of Che Guevara on the bus before we arrived at his mausoleum.


Che Guevera's mausoleum, no photos are allowed inside. Note the size of the people walking by
The  size and surroundings of the mausoleum are an indication of how much he was and still is revered in Cuba, if not by everyone at least officially. Entry to the tomb is up a grand staircase and the tomb itself is cool, cave like, dimly lit and silent.  Along with Che's tomb there are 38 other niches containing the remains of  guerillas killed in the unsuccessful Bolivian revolution along with Che. Each niche is decorated with a single fresh red carnation while Che's plaque is the most prominent and boasts several red carnations.  Alongside the tomb is a small museum, dedicated to him, filled with his belongings, memorabilia and photos. The large bronze statue of Che, looking out over the countryside at the front of the mausoleum is certainly impressive.


The only type of billboards you ever see in Cuba
Unfortunately time was of the essence and we still had a long way to go to reach Havana so the mausoleum was all we saw of Santa Clara. Ironically the city Che freed from Batista's corrupt rule and converted to conservative and socialist  is now considered to be one of Cuba's most edgy, go ahead and rebellious of cities. With a strong youth culture, Cuba's best rock festival and students at Santa Clara university testing the limits of censorship it is known as a city that sets trends and inspires creativity.
We finally arrived in Havana after a 4 hour drive through flat, fairly featureless countryside mesmerised by the lolling head of our guide as he gently dozed for much of the trip.  Well, there was one feature and that was the number of burnt out or burning cars we saw along the highway.  It seems keeping those old cars on the road can be a risky business.  It wouldn't surprise me if they were successfully repaired to drive another day.  Needs must!

As we drove into a busy Havana our guide proudly pointed out the stadium the Rolling Stones had performed at during their visit to Cuba.  It was clearly a big deal. As luck would have it I found the video of the Rolling Stones concert, Havana Moon, on the plane as I flew home.  What a fantastic concert, if you get the chance, watch it.

Late in the day we arrived back in the heart of Havana.  It's always good to come back to somewhere familiar and there was still some sightseeing to do.





Monday, 15 May 2017

Cruising the Carribean, snorkeling, and meeting iguanas

Having shivered all night due to an over zealous air conditioning unit I was really looking forward to spending the day under the hot Cuban sun. What better way to do that than to cruise on a catamaran across an impossibly blue, sparkling,  Caribbean sea. While most of our group of 12 had elected to go hiking, four of us opted for this cruise as an ideal way to spend our free day. Leaving from Marina Trinidad, about 20 minutes from the town, the boat was taking us to Cayo Blanco, a small reef island famed for the quality of it's diving and snorkeling.

With about 30 people aboard  the large catamaran we sailed out through green bushy headlands and onto a completely flat ocean.  After each claiming  a spot aboard we lay back to relax, chat, enjoy our surroundings and listen to the piped, toe tapping Cuban music.  This was the Caribbean and it was as perfect as I could have imagined.

Our catamaran at Cayo Blanco. The beaches there aren't great but the snorkeling and wild life are fantastic. (photo: Lynelle House)


What a perfect way to spend a day


















After around two hours we arrived at Cayo Blanco.  Some people opted to land on the island but most stayed aboard to travel to a good snorkeling spot.  I love snorkeling, I love being immersed in that dreamy other world under water and here the quality of the coral and tropical fish was thrilling to say the least. After a good half hour in the water we headed back to the island for a lavish seafood, buffet lunch, served by the boat crew.
Snorkeling in a pristine sea.  Me in the middle, back to the camera  (photo: Lynelle House)
  Then it was time to relax before the homeward journey. I was idly watching a group of hermit crabs scurrying about when one of our group  said "Come and see this"  As I rounded the corner I saw several large and very tame iguana sitting on the restaurant deck, making themselves quite at home and waiting for the leftovers of our lunch.   I was thrilled. I had never seen iguana before and they were so calm, so tame, we were able to get within inches of them.  They were the perfect icing on the cake of a wonderful day.



There were thousands of hermit crabs, all climbing over each other


It was thrilling to spend some time with the tame iguanas on the island

Then it was time for the return trip.  It had been glorious hot, sunny weather all day so the crew set up sunshades over the decks for people to rest under and before long everybody  was  relaxed and sleepy, some snoozing quietly.

Playa Ancon
Once ashore we were met at the marina by our tour bus driver who drove us the short distance to the lovely golden sands of Playa Ancon, said to be the best beach on Cuba's southern coast.  The rest of our group was there sunbathing and swimming, so we joined them to share stories of our day as a brilliant sun slipped gently towards the horizon.

Lovely end to a brilliant day (photo: Lynelle House)

  The large resort hotel on the beach looks impressive at first glance but take a closer look and it is run down with broken toilets, cracked and weedy walkways and a general air of neglect.   Cuba is so short of money that keeping  infrastructure in a good state of repair and maintaining assets is not seen as a pressing priority.  It is just as well the island's beauty makes up for it.  We had had a marvelous day, felt completely relaxed and content and were well pleased with our choice to cruise the Caribbean.


Right: Thumbs up from our guide, Omar.  I asked him if it was OK to put his photo on this blog. He said it was, as long as it made him look good!

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Trinidad, Cuba - Experience life 200 years ago

It is 7am and I am sitting on the rooftop terrace of my Casa Particular in Trinidad.  The view is down a narrow lane and out to sea.  The sun is rising and bathing the brightly coloured casas lining the street in a golden glow.  Two roosters are calling to each other from neighbouring properties and a dog is barking far enough away to not be annoying.   I can look right down into tiny courtyards as families bustle about making breakfast or hanging washing on lines, their conversations floating up on the still air. A  horse towing a small cart clip clops over the cobble stones and a passing vendor selling bread calls out for buyers. I am captivated.  It is as if I have been transported back a couple of hundred years and in reality I have been.


View from our Casa

Settled by Spanish explorers in 1514 Trinidad has had a colourful history, from its origins as a small farming community to a hideaway for smugglers and pirates and then as a centre for the booming sugar milling industry of the 19th century.  When the sugar industry was decimated, due to conflicts and fires during the war of independence, the town became a rural back water, largely unknown and ignored by the rest of Cuba. One of the few good things President Batista did was to pass a preservation law  in the 1950s in order to maintain Trinidad as an historical site.  Today it has UNESCO world heritage status and is considered to be one of the best preserved, and least altered, historical towns in the Americas.
A Trinidad taxi
If you have anything to sell you sell it from your front room
The best thing to do in Trinidad is to just  stroll.  The locals love to be out on the street, or sitting on their doorsteps, so there is always something colourful to see.    Make sure you wear flat, comfortable shoes, though, the ancient cobblestones are uneven and challenging to walk on.  All the streets in town lead  to Plaza Mayor where there are some fine examples of French colonial architecture.  There is also a craft market to the side of the square. 

Doing the mending

Dominoes is a popular pastime




















At night Plaza Mayor becomes a lively hub for the town with $2 mojitos served from a hole-in-the-wall bar and crowds of locals and tourists mingling and chatting.  We had a great time hanging out there but it was also where we saw an unpleasant side of the local bureaucracy.  Our delightful and totally professional guide, a black Cuban, was approached by the police and questioned.  He was asked for his identity card and his details were rung through to headquarters.  When all details checked out he was left to continue his evening.  He told us later that this happens all the time.  He thinks it is because he is black and that the authorities are suspicious as to why he is hanging out with foreign tourists.  Later in the evening more police entered the square. Fortunately our guide spotted them coming and quickly removed himself from our group in order to avoid more hassles. We all felt bad for him and were a bit subdued after this incident. It had burst our happy 'tourist' bubble a little and shown us the dark side of an authoritarian government.
Plaza Mayor, Trinidad

Plaza Mayor becomes a fun and lively gathering place in the evenings
 It was in Trinidad, at Cafe Jazz, that I had my best meal in Cuba,  lobster with a delicious sauce all for the price of a cheap hamburger in New Zealand.  The entertainment was great too with a cool singer crooning well known jazz standards in both English and Spanish.


Late in the evening a few of us decided to make our way back to our casas  and got horribly lost, no hardship, though, because the streets are so picturesque it really seemed to be a shame to be heading home to bed anyway. We noticed the streets had water running down the centre of them.  When we asked our guide about this he said that it is the waste water from the houses which is released every evening, it is the drainage system that has been in place for 200 years.

Warm glow at sunset
Trinidad's primitive drainage system




















I highly recommend Trinidad if you want to experience a town almost frozen in time.  It is  picturesque, quaint and charming but this also means there is little infrastructure for today's modern lifestyles.

Here are my recommendations for Trinidad:

ACCOMMODATION: Casa Carmen Y Pupito - spotlessly clean, wonderful, kindly hosts, good location and excellent breakfast.  I would stay there again
DINING: Trinidad Jazz Cafe - Great ambience in a lovely building, attentive and friendly service, delicious food, inexpensive

I am also on Facebook @ A Wandering Widow - Solo Travel  I'd love to see you there.