What a shame that I did not start documenting my travels before Guatemala in late 2012. I would have loved to record my experiences and impressions of Cuba during our trip in November 2011, fresh and on the go.
Cuba has been making space in the news in 2014-2015. With an eye to the future, the government has been relaxing some rules and implementing new rules that in the long run will develop the people and its economy. Americans are now also allowed to visit Cuba. How exciting for them. I, for one, for my own selfish reasons, am not too thrilled. But hey, no one should stand in front of sustainable progress. I would have loved to come back to La Habana (Havana) one more time sitting still in its 1950s glory and explore the eastern side of Cuba all the way to Santiago.
My trip to Cuba with my bff is still one of the best trips ever! There was no archeological ruin to see or worthy museum worth visiting. The whole of Cuba when we were there, is one gigantic museum for the sociologists for its social structure and people’s behaviors; for the Architects for its colonial rundown buildings from its heyday; for the motor enthusiasts for its antique cars (love my pink chevy taxi); and for economists due to its dual currency/dual economy based on the Convertibles (CUC) for tourists and its Cuban Pesos for the locals. The Government’s influences can be easily seen on the street through the propaganda billboards.
On this trip, we went to Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos.
Most foreigners are familiar with a few things that are very identical with Cuba: cigars, rum which is the based on mojito and one of the best places to have it is Hotel Nacional, antique cars, and the music scene, such as Buena Vista Social Club. From the perspective of famous figures, a non-Cuban Che Guevarra is as famous as the still living Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Photos below.
Everywhere you go in Cuba, you will always see and hear people singing and dancing. They are really happy, go-with-the-flow people. One evening we heard a trio performing at La Floridita, Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina accoustic style. Impressive! What an energy!
Around the centre and old Havana, including Paseo Martí (part of Paseo de Prado), many glorious colonial buildings can still be seen. Some are worn out more than others. With a tad of imagination, one can appreciate the beauty of them.
Being able to speak Spanish also got us a little bit closer to them. We chatted with a few of them, and they were always curious about us. We were also asked many times to share our CUC. As with CUC, they can afford a lot more products available to them sold in Cuban Peso. CUC is Cuban Convertible Currency and it is only available to foreigners.
I am glad I went with my male bff though. The moment we split, I was slightly harassed by this one Cubano, in the Old Havana. He followed me around for a while and after I managed to lose him, he waited to accost me when I was heading back to the my hotel in front of La Floridita (one of Hemingway’s fave haunt for his daiquiri booze). The guy offered to pay me USD5,000 for a letter of invite to visit Singapore, which I politely declined.
It is also common for jineteros (male hustlers) to hassle groups of female tourists. And conversely, jineteras (female hustlers) would hassle groups of male tourists. As a mixed-sex couple, we were only harrassed for our CUC 🙂
Trinidad is a charming colonial town, smaller than Cienfuegos. One evening we went around Trinidad looking for this famous underground cave club, called Club Ayala (see pic below). That was fun! Though luckily I had my bff turned bodyguard that night! We bar hopped a bit, and I danced salsa a couple of times, just faking the steps (until today, I am always lost with Cuban salsa!).
In Trinidad, we went on a train-ride on the suggestion of our house-mother (we did a homestay) to visit a hacienda called Guachinango (which used to be plantation) and an old sugar mill, Manaca Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugarcane Mills). In Manaca Iznaga, we could climb up to the top of the observation tower to see the valley. It is beautiful.
On a separate day, we went horse back riding on to explore outside the city and to visit a waterfall for swimming, and we had pork cooked over a spitfire for lunch, served with rice.
We did homestays in Casa Particulares (Private Homes) in both Cienfuegos and Trinidad, but the most memorable one is our stay in Cienfuegos with Abuela (Grandma) Leonor. At her place, we had amazing local home-cooked food. God bless Abuela Leonor for her Coca-Cola chicken and amazing mojito made with 7-year Havana Club rum. Her house was also a museum in itself – from the high ceiling and colored glass windows and door (very colonial style) to the little trinkets she kept!
There was an old and beautiful hotel with Arabic geometric decorations, Palacio de Valle in Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos where we met an old singer who looks like una bruja (a witch). She played piano and sang. And after every break, she tried to get us to buy her whiskey. We went there to celebrate my bff’s birthday. It was a fun night. The hotel bar with the grand piano gave us a nostalgic feeling of the hotel’s heyday.
Cuba was the playground of the wealthy sugar plantation owners of the US in its heyday. This could be seen when we explored Cienfuegos on foot during the day (from the old, beautiful mansions along the malecon (walkway along the sea) and the main square).
In Cuba, foreigners are really treated as king. One evening, we strolled around the centre of Cienfuegos. We came across Coppelia, an ice cream place. We peeked inside and it looked half empty (it was a big space), and we happily strolled in. Not realizing that no seat was available. And somehow bff looked outside, down the walkway and saw a line of people waiting to go in. So of course, we immediately realized our error and walked out. As we walked out, the server of Coppelia called us over and insisted we returned. He made sure two seats got vacated so we could go and eat our ice cream. We felt so bad and we badly wanted to refuse. He was very insistent. So at the end, we did sit down and ordered. No one waiting on the line complained. Another interesting thing was we saw a board containing a long list of flavors, but in reality there was only one 🙂
We stopped by some beautiful beaches on the way to catching a boat ride to an old fort from the Spanish colonial times. We went to someone’s house for lunch near the fort, and it was the best langostines (lobster) dish ever! On the boat ride back, upon disembarking, a group of Cubans called us over and shared with us their rums while we chatted and watched the sunset. Asians speaking Spanish were quite exotic there.
One day, we decided to go out of the city. We went to swim at a natural park called El Nicho. It has many waterfalls. It was all foreign tourists, but still beautiful 🙂
Cuba is really something else! On the way to Parque El Nicho, we watched our driver bought gas illegally. He had to suck into a hose to get the gas from another car’s tank to his car. After that he introduced us to a couple guys who could took us on a boat ride across a lake. It was supposed to be a 45-min ride which turned to a nightmarish 3-hour ride boat ride. They got the boat stuck to the water plants and we had to stop every five minutes to unstuck our boat. It was a painful experience, and I had to return to Havana that night! Talk about vacation stress!
Cuba really made a deep impression for me. I love the people and the whole atmosphere. I wish one day I could go back and relive the feelings again before it gets too opened and swarmed with tourists.