Step Back in Time

Capitolio Havana

Murphy’s Law applied on my anticipation about internet connection in Cuba which is the reason why I was silent and had limited contact with family and friends.  However, as promised, I will be sharing my Cuban adventures in four parts,  twice a week in the next two weeks starting Friday, then followed by Monday.

In a nutshell, my trip to Cuba was indeed inspiring, culturally and historically rich, relaxing and memorable!  It had all the good characteristics of an awesome tourist destination.

Visiting Cuba is one of my dreams fulfilled.  After witnessing its greatest and historical treasures, I highly recommend Australians to consider Cuba as a destination holiday paradise.  The lack of commercial advertising of the country and the fact that it’s always being thought of as geographically unattractive and politically unsafe are reasons why travellers are missing half of their life.  Cuba has an excellent reputation for safety and a beautiful place to see along with loads of history.  One definitely has to see it to understand its beauty.

My Cuban adventure commenced the moment I boarded the Cuban Airlines flight CU 153 at 1435 on Monday, 11 October.  It was the best flight times and definitely the cheapest option. You may also opt to take the safer service AeroMexico ex Cancun, or via Canada.  CU check in staff was very amiable and friendly.

Travel Tip:  If you spend more than 24hours in Mexico while waiting for your flight to Cuba, you will be required to pay at the check in counter the amount of USD22 as departure and airport tax ex Cancun.

You will need to take a bus to get to the tarmac to board the aircraft.  I was a little nervous flying with CU, as I have not read any great feedback about the airline.  The moment I boarded the ‘Yakovlev YAK 42′ aircraft was an indicative that we were headed to a Communist country.  The cabin compartment located on the entry hallway didn’t seem to look fit with the shutter door.  Instead a strap was installed to secure the storage area.

The forward cabins were separated from the economy cabins and were apparently not occupied by passengers but luggage and bags.  Evidently, safety precautions were surely not observed nor were they the prime concern.  In just a few minutes after we took off,  I immediately noticed the mist generating from the side upper shield above the windows and it became more obvious after a good 10 minutes.  Surprisingly only a few passengers were mindful about what was happening around.  On top of this, one of the 3 AC controls was leaking and the water was dripping right into my lap.  The flight was full and the flight attendants were busy, so I did not really bother to make a fuss about it.  I remained calm in my seat with my seat belt buckled.  After a while, as a reward for my patience, the dripping stopped.  During the entire flight, the attendants served us some refreshments – a packet of Crispy Kernels and a choice of water or soft drinks or Havana rum.  It was a manageable 1 hour and 35 minutes flight.  The funny thing though was 15 minutes prior to our landing I had to endure with the dripping water once again.  The only great thing I could say about the service of CU is that the landing was smooth and steady, and our luggage arrived with the flight.

Customs clearance for me was quick and easy, but for my friend Sam it took another 30 minutes plus another hour to wait for the luggage to eventually be visible.  I wonder why?

It was raining when we finally got out of the terminal.  We were welcomed by Nelson and his partner, who brought us to Aurora Casa Particular via a red Toyota med sized Sedan. The car has a very small compartment just enough to fit my suitcase.  Sam’s suitcase was placed in the back seat in between us.  It took us a good 25 minutes to get to the casa.  We drove along the streets and although it was already dark, the poverty that ensnared the nation was very apparent.  In our private car ride, we were witnesses to dilapidated and destroyed houses, vintage cars, people walking or waiting on the side streets for a bus or hitch hike (a very common practice for Cubans to get around.). The introductory words that Nelson uttered to us about Cuba is that “it’s a very complicated country.”

While in the car, Nelson briefed us about taxis.  He explained that a private collection from tourists coming from the airport is restricted in Cuba.  However, in order to make extra money, this rule is certainly ‘not followed to the letter’ by Cubans.  If caught, the driver will be fined heavily but in order to get around this, you will need to say that you are somehow family or professionally connected to the driver. The transport fare from the Airport to the Casa was CUC25 (approximately USD25).

Finally we arrived at the Aurora Casa Particular, where I had pre booked two rooms at CUC 30/room/night for the first two nights.  The Casa is comparable to a homestays arrangement. This type of lodging is predominant in Cuba. . The Casa is a 3-storey block of apartments where we were met by Aurora and her son Rene.  Each floor is gated and constitutes two houses (with the exception of Aurora’s house which occupies the whole of the top floor).  Each room has its own bathroom, AC and mini fridge as well as individual keys.  I had the bigger room with sitting areas and a separate door to access the house patio.  The rooms and the bathroom are very clean and tidy.  This family has been operating this business since 1994 and they customarily provide their guests a list of recommended Casas all over Cuba.

After Aurora recorded our passport/visa details, a requirement by the Cuban authorities for each stay, Rene spent a good hour with us to go through some basic stuff like do’s and don’ts, where to eat, where to change money, etc.  He also showed us the map within the area.  The street map is like a grid and their streets are numbered and lettered, no names except in some main landmarks.

Restaurant Union Francesa, Havana

At 9pm, we had our first authentic Cuban cuisine and Mojito at Restaurant Union Francesca -a 3-storey restaurant. We dined on the ground floor of the restaurant.  There was no menu list as they offer an all-inclusive two course meal: a choice of pork or chicken, which includes rice, salad, drink (beer or Mojito), and then a dessert. The set-meal costs CUC10 per person.  I ordered pork and Sam had the mixed of chicken and shrimps which cost extra CUC5.  Salad was very plain; cut lettuce, cucumber and avocado.  Nothing so special about the food but I have certainly enjoyed my first Mojito. I had another glass of it for an extra CUC2

The following morning, Tuesday 12 October, we extensively went through the planning of our itinerary as Sam is only in Cuba for one week while I had 23 days to explore the country.  We then decided to visit Trinidad and leave on Thursday morning.

Rene took us to the Riviera Hotel to get some money changed.  It is best to use GPB or EUR currencies when in Cuba.  Whilst USD can be changed, there is a surcharge fee of 22%.  And should you opt to use your credit cards, where mostly only acceptable by the hotels, the surcharge is 11.24%, and 11.92% when transacting cash withdrawals from very few ATMs.  My tip is to make sure you carry GBP or EUR cash currency to avoid any extra surcharges, and ONLY change through a bank or Cadeca (Money Exchange).

Rene drove us along Malecon – an eight kilometre stretched of combined seawall and roadway along the coast.  It is a popular place among locals as well as tourists to hang out day or night time.  The number of ruined houses is very prominent along Malecon.  After that entertaining drive, he dropped us off at the Plaza de Armas where we begin to explore the historical city of Havana by foot as supposed to taking the double decker Havana Bus Tour.  We started our foot tour along Obispo Street and took a break at Café Paris where we savoured our first Cuban lunch and my third Mojito and met with Nick & Kate from Melbourne.

After the sumptuous lunch, we decided to take a stroll and move to La Lluvia de Oro, a place recommended by Nick and Kate, for another round of drinks while listening to a live Cuban band playing.  The bands played little music and one of them went around the tables to collect some tip.  We then continued on to another bar, Floridita Restaurant/bar, noted and believed to be Hemingway’s favourite spot.  There we met another couple from the UK.  Here you will be assured of getting the best cocktail for CUC6 as you enjoy listening to a live band.

Plaza de Catedral

 We continued exploring the streets of Havana through the night and this time without a street map andaccidentally stumbled upon the Plaza de la Catedral, which is one of my favourite spots and happens to be considered as one of the most valuable historical sites in the city.  We continued walking and ended in Plaza de Viaja where the famous Casa de Cerveza bar is located.  We finally got tired and decided to get a cab back. It was easy for us to give the direction to the cab driver since our casa was closed to a famous landmark the John Lennon’s park.  While in the cab, I was still overwhelmed with what I have seen and the rich cultural heritage this city has to offer.  It made me keep thinking back that I have just been in a movie set back in the 50s.

Prado Round About, Havana

It was 10:30pm when we finally arrived around the Casa area.  Sam got hungry so before we headed back to the Casa, we decided to get something to eat at the Restaurant Union Francesca. This time we decided to dine on the top floor.  Our bill this time was under CUC10 which includes a huge plate of pork dish/salad/2 waters/1 lemonade.

Most Casa Particulares can prepare a meal at a very minimal cost. In most cases they’re also the better place to eat.  The next morning, Wednesday, 13 October after a quick breakfast at the casa, Rene drove us to the The Necropolis Cristóbal Colón (Havana’s Cemetery). The place is generally not frequented by many tourists.  However, Rene suggested that we should visit to see the tombs’ flair and unique architectural structures.   From the cemetery, we visited the Hotel Nacional, a historic luxury hotel located on the Malecón in Havana.  This is where I first saw a Mercedes taxi car, parked in front of the hotel.  It was, obviously, the most expensive hotel and also by far the most elegant in the country.  I spotted Kate and Nick by the pool area.  We found out that their CUA flight to Cancun was cancelled due to the hurricane.

We then drove to Fabrica Partagas (Tobacco Store) Havana but could not visit the actual factory for a tour as it closed at 1pm.  But we had the chance to try my first ever ‘Cohibo’ tobacco, which has been tagged to be the best in the world.    Rene then dropped us off at the Havana Rum Museum.  Again it was too late for us to see as the factory was also closed.  We continued to stroll back to the Plaza de Catedral, but I personally found the place to be more enticing during night time.

Prior to arriving to Cuba I had already anticipated the limited or sporadic internet access, and if there happen to be one, it will be expensive and very slow. I must admit that I certainly did feel paralysed when I attempted to use the internet for 30mins for CUC 3 – which literally only allowed me the opportunity to send 3 emails.  Whilst you can go to an internet café, it is best to go to a hotel to use internet to avoid the queues.  Telstra mobile roaming does not work either in Cuba.

Our last night in Havana was culminated with a sumptuous lobster dinner set for CUC12 which includes salad, rice and my requested dessert, flan de leche to see if Aurora could beat my sister’s specialty.  Sorry Aurora, my sister still makes the best!

We left Havana via Viazul bus at 8:15am and finally arrived at Trinidad close to 2pm on Thursday, 14 Ocotober.  The bus seat was comfortable.  And I must confess that the bus ride was way more comfortable than the Cuban Airlines.  It was also equipped with TV/AC/toilet.  The cost for the ticket was CUC25.  I was pleased to be able to borrow an overnight bag from Aurora for my 2-week trip outside Havana.  I left my suitcase behind at the casa. I could not really imagine myself carrying my large sized suitcase as I travel by land.

Trinidad was not as busy as Havana.  It represents as one of the better if not best historical and cultural treasures of Cuba.  Trinidad is a museum in itself.  Its well preserved architectural designs even date back to colonial time.  It includes amazing cobblestone streets, blustered windows, red tile roofs and monumental squares.  Houses here are literally built attached to each other where houses have huge wooden front doors, unlike in Havana.  I was certainly enchanted by its history.  The place is ideal for a 2 nights/3days stay.  Rene has organised the booking at Cesar’s Casa. When we arrived at the terminal, Cesar was already at the Viazu bus station holding a signboard with our names and ready to welcome and greet us.  The nightly rate in Trinidad is cheaper than Havana at CUC25/night.

My dinners in Trinidad were mostly at the casa.  I had lunch in one of the Internet cafes where we mostly hang out. The café is a 2-minute walk from our casa.  Nearby the Internet café was a Travel desk where you can organise some tours and car rentals.  It was in this Internet café, where I met Frederic and his friend Hugo – both from Switzerland. These two gentlemen became my buddies during my stay in Trinidad and Playa Santa Lucia.

Food was very much the same wherever you eat in Trinidad.  During my 2 nights stay in Trinidad (which is theoretically 1.5 day) I  didn’t’ get the chance to visit places nearby.  However I met Monica and Haiko, both were staying at the Casa, who informed they visited the beaches and waterfalls nearby via their rented car.  I was surprised how verse they are in getting around without getting lost.

I also had the chance to visit La Canchanchara  – a popular tavern that is housed in an old mansion.  A live Cuban band usually plays at the tavern. This is perfect place to hang out and relax, have an afternoon drink and be entertained.

Aside from admiring the colonial history that Trinidad has to offer, Casa de Musica, was the highlight of my visit.  I like it being an open-air venue for evening entertainment as you enjoy listening to the live music played by noted local live bands.

Holy Trinity Church & on the right hand side is the Casa de Musica, Trinidad

We culminated our first night at the outdoor Casa de Musica, located next to the Church of Holy Trinity. This is the right place to enjoy listening to a live band or show off your salsa dancing moves.   We were joined in by Monica and Haiko, from Switzerland, who were also staying at the same Cesar’s Casa.  An Afro-Cuban dance performance was also showcased that night.

Cayo Coco was my next scheduled stop after Trinidad.  But to get there, it is not as simple as taking one bus-ride. So when I learned that Frederic and Hugo were planning to go to Cayo Coco the next day by car, I was so excited.

However, the next day, Friday, 15 October, I saw Frederic at the Internet cafe.  He informed me that their plans to Caya Coco were changed.  Instead, they arranged to leave at 3pm that afternoon to go to Santa Clara by Viazul bus then go to Playa Santa Lucia on Sunday.  As I had the time to go to Santa Lucia and also explore more of Cuba, I decided to buy myself a ticket to Comaquey the following day and from there to take a bus to Playa Santa Lucia.

I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around Trinidad and ended at Grand Hotel, the main hotel in Trinidad. I went inside the foyer to check their exchange rate. The bank in Trinidad opens at 8am and closes at 3pm and it was already 4pm when I got there.  I was advised to go to another Cadeca which closes at 5pm.  The EUR rate at Cadeca was 1.25 whereas at the hotel was 1.23.

I went back to the casa and only to find out there was no electricity.  It was very hot that afternoon but there was nothing you could do but bear the heat as blackouts are very common in Cuba.  Thankfully, the electricity was back on at 6.45pm.  Apparently, it rained heavily the night before in Havana and the place was left with no electricity so the decision of going to Trinidad was a blessing in disguise.  Also, a hurricane just hit Vinales, another place we were looking at instead of Trinidad.

Saturday, 16 October, at 7am the streets of Trinidad were quiet but it was a common a scene to witness children walking to school.  Today marks the first day of travelling solo. Worried but at the same time very excited as I know that my adventure is just about to begin.  That morning, I decided not to eat pork whilst in Cuba.  It was that morning that I saw pork left on the bench, not refrigerated, while on the way to the bus station. I sadly sent off Sam to the bus station.  His bus left half hour earlier for Havana.

My first solo trip was to the province of Camaguey, the capital city of Santa Lucia.  It was a relatively long journey. The bus fare costs CUC15, which is cheaper than my Havana -Trinidad trip, although the travelling time and distance is almost equal.  My bus left Trinidad at 8am and finally arrived at Camaquey at 1.45pm.  We travelled through some rugged roads.  The view from my window was a typical morning where you will see farmers in their horse carriages, workers going to work, students waiting for the bus or hoping to get a ride.

Rene, who has so far been acting as my personal Casa Particulares dedicated booking agent, has arranged for Puchy, his contact in Camaguey, to meet me at the Viazul Bus Terminal.  The room at Camaguey costs CUC20 /night. I was met by Puchy’s friend at the station in a very rustic non-painted 1950 Chevrolet.  It was old enough that it required to be locked from the outside.  I could feel the aged leather seat as it was dry and hard.

After settling into my clean and double-bedded room, I took a stroll around town at around 3pm which is generally the hottest time of the day. I decided to go back to the casa in an hour and had a toasted ham/cheese sandwich which I had requested Puchy’s wife to prepare for me before I left the casa.

I culminated my stay that evening by chatting with Puchy’s daughter, as we sat on the stairs outside by the doorway. With the half moon watching over us, it made the night blissful, cool and fresh.  I very much enjoyed the chat with the daughter as she spoke very good English.  I learnt from her so much more about Cuba and their family background.  It was that night that I found out that there is an airport in Camaguey.  Her mother (Puchy’s ex wife) lives in Miami and flies directly to Camaguey to visit them.   For now, the flight only serves Cubans residing in US.  There are flights available to/from Canada to Camaquey for travelling tourists.

Plaza de Carmen, one of the many churches in Camaquey

In Camaquey, I mostly dined at the casa. I really did not have enough time to explore the town due to my short stay.  The city as a whole has an interesting layout that reminds me of a maze, with narrow and short streets.  Camaguey in general is a city of churches, prominently old churches.  Houses are similar in Trinidad – red tiled roofs and windows with beautiful ironwork, which gives the city an antique flavour.


© 2012 by Michelle Riel, retains sole copyright to her contributions to all the contents of this site.

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