Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Havana and the Road Home

Finally, toward the end of the trip, we made it to our main objective – Havana.  This time we got a better price of 90 CUC for a three hour taxi trip, but the car, while promised to have air-conditioning didn’t, and it was tiny and a most uncomfortable drive.  As always though the view of the countryside and small towns was great, and when we arrived at our pre-booked AirBnB apartment it was exactly as described and most importantly came with kick-butt air conditioning in the bedrooms.  Did I mention it was crazy hot and sweaty most of our trip?  I had forgotten a hat, and my face was constantly sweating and burning.  Our clothes were also rank after just one wearing.

Rejuvinated by the air-con though we spent the first afternoon/evening exploring Vadado, our immediate neighborhood in Havana.  We visited the University and had a drink at a rooftop bar overlooking the U.S. Embassy and the Malecon and sea below.

All of these activities were recommended by our fabulous host Carlos, owner of the apartment we were renting.  He was touted online as a fantastic planner and helper and he didn’t disappoint.  He also recommend a local Bar-B-Q restaurant for dinner, and we had a very memorable night, first due to a huge downpour that made for the indoor/outdoor restaurant having to convert to all indoor in a hurry, and then eventually to the cheap, good and plentiful food.

The next morning Carlos arranged for us to have a wonderful guide, Jose, to make sure we saw all the important sights in Old Havana.  This was another highlight.  Viejo Havana is very cool, and Jose spoke perfect English so we learned a lot about the history of the city.

Wilder and Mark also spent some time learning about and buying a few cigars.  Then Peyton and I got to shop for perfume.

Our tour was only supposed to be 3 hours long (for 40 CUC) but in typical Cuban fashion Jose changed his plans and spent three more hours taking us to Miramar, another part of the city, to help us do a favor for a friend at home.  Our friend Maggie grew up in Cuba, but left after the revolution and hasn’t been back.  She asked us to try to get some photos of some buildings her father, who was an architect, had built.  We aren’t sure we found the exact buildings, but we did try hard!  Jose didn’t charge us any more for what was double the work.  We enjoyed getting to know him.  He is a cigar expert and has traveled to over 25 countries in that line of work.

Our last dinner in Havana wasn’t especially memorable, but a stop at the Chocolate museum afterward was.  The chocolate was outstanding.  If we didn’t know it would melt into puddles we would have brought lots of it home.

After a really good breakfast for 25 CUC the next morning (another recommendation by Carlos) we hit the road back to Varadero as we had a 7:30am flight out of there the next morning. Our hostess from out last stay had told us to come back and she  would try to find us another place as hers was already booked.  That didn’t however go quite as expected.  When we arrived she first chastised us pretty seriously for not staying for three nights in the places she arranged in Cienfuegos, never-mind the fact that they were not as described.  Then she declared that there were no rooms available.  When we joked about sleeping in the airport she said it was a good idea and offered to call us a cab.  Finally she agreed to let Wilder and I sit in the yard with our luggage while Mark and Peyton once again hoofed it around to try to find us a place to sleep.  Wilder was lobbying hard for spending the night on the beach, but I wasn’t having any of that.  This time our failure to plan hurt the worst, after a couple of hours Peyton located a hotel that offered us two rooms at $150 each.  By that time we felt lucky to get them.  They did turn out to be decently nice with good aircon, but we later found out the location was less than ideal…

After recovering from our last accommodation hunt, Peyton (again) located us a rare and perfect restaurant for our goodbye to Cuba dinner.  It was maybe a bit out of our price range, and we were counting down our last converted dollars.  The setting was ideal, with a talented classical guitarist playing and one of the best meals of our trip.  We ended up with a bill that came within $3 of the cash we had – cutting it quite a bit closer than we would have liked.  Still, we tipped the guitarist our last coins and went to bed with nothing except what we expected to need to get to and out of the airport the next day.  This last evening was magical and maybe summed up our trip.  Dinner and our time together and interactions with the Cuban people was perfection, but as we tried desperately to sleep through the night, the crazy bumping disco across the street (till 3am) reminded me that this was our experience with Cuba – part perfection and part unreasonably difficult.

Our taxi arrived on time at 5:30 the next morning and everything else went off without incident.  We sailed through immigration and customs in Miami without a single question about our itinerary.  It turned out I had been worried about all the wrong things.  Our son, Wilder though, gave me a gloriously satisfying thank you for the experience as we were returning home today.  Our daughter’s thanks showed throughout the trip, as she has perhaps adapted to this type of travel the best of all of us (ironic because she was the most bitter traveler on our big trip.)  As for myself, I decided I am perhaps getting a bit old for this type of travel.  Still, now that it’s done I wouldn’t trade it for a more posh time.  Because we did manage it, our Cuban adventure, and those 9 days helped us recapture the 9 months we spent, now 5 years earlier, traveling the world.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Cienfuegos and Trinidad

We considered several options to see more of the "real" Cuba, but eventually opted for a town on the opposite coast called Cienfuegos, not least because our hostess said she could find us similar accommodations among friends there.  Luckily we were also able to arrange for an expensive New Year’s day ride in a private taxi (the most economical type of transportation for a party of four) costing 140 CUC for a 2 plus hour drive.  After also getting our hostess to say she could find us a room for our last night back in Varadero before our early morning flight the next week, we loaded up and headed out.

The car was certainly sketchy by U.S. standards but not terribly uncomfortable, and we enjoyed the ride and our view of the countryside.  Arriving at the provided address however, proved disappointing, as instead of an apartment type situation, or even two rooms in one house, we found we were to be housed in two separate houses a block apart.  Once again the hosts were lovely.  Still, we found ourselves again looking for accommodation as the two different houses weren't as advertised and didn’t suit us for multiple nights. 

Yes that's $4.00 for one of our better meals

And how 'bout that presentation

So after a really tasty low cost dinner, a relatively comfortable night in our separate casas, and a tasty breakfast (standard cost of 5 CUC per person including fruit, juice, eggs, bread and really good coffee) we set out again to find a place to stay.  This time we walked (me too) for a couple of hours and talked to many places with no room.  When we had given up,  a young man we had met at a hotel, stopped us to introduce us to another young man.  He showed us pictures of two rooms in a beautiful restored old house for 60 CUC per night.  We then went back with Pedro to meet his mother Rosemary, and quickly booked 2 nights in their lovingly restored estate.

This accommodation was without doubt the most fortuitous of our trip, as we got to know this family the best.  I could really go on and on, but perhaps it suffice it to say that after the first day Rosemary said I reminded her of her sister, and by the time we left we were calling each other sisters.  She and I both teared up when we had to say goodbye.  If you should go to Cienfuegos you absolutely have to stay here!  Email me and I will get you contact info.

Pablo, it turned out, is a artist.  He showed us how he creates engravings on linoleum that he then makes prints from.  I chose to buy one of his prints to bring home as a souvenir.

Another of our best nights in Cuba was when Rosemary and family made us a home cooked Cuban meal.  It was a real family affair, with Pedro's girlfriend's dad BarBQing and her mom and brother joining us for chatting in the wrought iron rockers as the sun set.  Afterward we played cards with Peyton translating.

We had heard that tourists in the very popular Unesco town of Trinidad were resorting to sleeping in the park, due to lack of rooms, so we settled for a day trip.  It was indeed a step back in time and lovely, but the town was completely overrun with tourists, and that made it difficult to really enjoy.  These are among the few shots I got without hoards of them.


Like father like daughter

Other things we did in Cienfuegos included watching the sunset at a once grand hotel on the rooftop at sunset, and chatting up a local nurse on a local ferry on the way to view a 200 year old fort.  This is perhaps a good time to say that we spoke to a lot of people regarding their opinions about the politics of Cuba and the United States.  Suffice it to say that those opinions varied greatly.  The best summary I could make is that the Cubans we spoke to living in Cuba (not to be confused with Cubans who live in the U.S. and see things very differently) love Castro because they believe he rescued them from a dictator, but now they are also impatient for more freedoms and economic opportunity.  Everyone told us that changes in the last few years have been occurring in the form of more access to internet and the ability to act as entrepreneurs, including the opportunity to buy and sell cars and apartments.  Even though taxes are crazy high on income from foreign sources (one acquaintance told us he worked for a cruise line for many years when the Cuban government collected 80% of the income he earned) access to hard currency from tourists represents real and rare opportunity for Cubans that they are keen to capitalize on.  Still I think it is important to also say that multiple Cubans we talked to are happy with their lives, wanting more freedoms yes, but appreciating the simple lifestyles they have without any of the resentment we wanted to feel for them.

An example of the often completely empty shelves we found in stores.

This is before all the people got on.

We really enjoyed our time in Cienfuegos, but we were also anxious to get to Havana, and that city didn't disappoint!  Read about that and our final and most desperate accommodation hunt in my next and last post on Cuba.