Cuba has always been a great desire for me to visit..why? I could not tell..All I knew about it was, that it’s a stunning Caribbean island with some strange status in the world..all I heard..’go and visit before it changes’..I knew the famous Che Guevara ‘s face..I did not know what he did or why he was idolized…I knew Fidel Castro has done something great and once he dies things will change in Cuba. This is pretty much it.

The sad thing is that a lot of people who are going on holiday to Cuba and stay in the Cayos del Norte in an all-inclusive resort for 2 weeks will leave Cuba with similar knowledge..Cuba is a not straight forward country. I am not sure how much I know about it after having spent a month there and digging deep into the culture instead of having a comfy holiday..I have the feeling that there is so much more to it..you have to visit a few times to really understand although speaking the language helps massively.

But let’s start at the beginning. I left London with a half heart as I updated on Facebook leaving behind the man I love..I did not know if it was a good idea having a second round of travelling but my latest job pushed me away from the UK again..I felt I needed to think and get away from the horror of 2013 in terms of my career.

So I boarded the plane on the 6th January at 10am, and landed in Cuba at 8pm ( Air Europe via Madrid). By 11 pm I was out of the airport! The frustration started right there..waiting for luggage, changing money (it is not possible to get Cuban currency anywhere else..the double currency contributes to the difficulties). Poor taxi driver was waiting for me since 7pm..he did not know the plane was delayed with an hour..how would he know it..he cannot go and check the status of the flight online…So after a whopping 3 hours ‘dicking around’ I met my taxi driver who drove me and another English gentleman who happened to go to the same direction as I did in an American car! My first trip was in a Ford from ’52 that was in pieces but still functioned. (I had to hold the door so it does’t open and gets smashed). He drove me to the historical center of Havana, to the casa particular Santy situation just by the church where the other national hero Jose Marti was babtised. Jose Marti is a pre-revolutionary here not only in Cuba but in Latin -America. He was a writer, poet, politician..a fighter for Cuba.

Santy welcomed me with a warm hug along with Ben (American boy having been in the house since Christmas 2013 speaking perfect Spanish). I felt I needed that welcome otherwise I would have collapsed and cried..none of my bones wanted the hassle of travelling again..not when i did not have the whole heart with me.

Santy's houseMy beautiesOld man selling nuts DrinksErnestoCoco taxiAliz, Santy, BenHavana Club

MalekonArchitectureEmilio y Milagros

I spent 6 nights in Havana, Ben was my bodyguard and friend, he started introducing me to this strange culture..he warned me from the ‘jineteros’ or male prostitutes who are targeting foreigner for their money or for their ‘hearts’..which for them means a passport ..a way OUT of Cuba. In Havana it was still a blur for me..why would they want to leave such a great country..with such a high level of patriotism and music, dances..a real Latin community . Ben showed me the places where I can eat cheap..from 2-3-5 moneda nacional. Right..I need to clarify this currency issue here.

Local money- or moneda nacional- Cuban Peso

Tourist money-CUC

1 CUC is worth 25 moneda nacional.  1 UK pound is 1.57 CUC. A dinner for a tourist cost more or less 5-10 CUC..this is budget meal….it can be even 15-20 CUC ..London prices..and as I said..there are places where local people are eating ‘criolla food’ taking their little plastic bowls with them..for 3-5 moneda nacional. which is the 5th of 1 CUC..I started to see the level of poverty certain people suffer from..but it did not become clearer cause some of them lived well..isn’t socialism about ‘equal distribution’? Well..in theory it is. Cuban people do not pay for their healthcare. They get the medicines for free.any kind..24 hours a day. They do not need to pay for their or their children’s education. Saying that..a professional working in the public sector (not much space for private sector at all) ..say a university professor earns 25 CUC a month. Yes ladies and gentlemen, that is about 14 UK sterling a month.

 

Let me share my itinerary at the beginning so it’s easier to follow:

cuba-my route

 

1. Havana

2. Viñales

3. Maria la Gorda

4. Playa Larga

5. Cienfuegos

6. Trinidad

7. Santiago de Cuba

8. Baracoa

9. Holguin

10. Camaguey

11. Remedios

12. Cayo Santa Maria

13. Havana

After Havana I headed to Viñales- Valle de Viñales is an UNESCO World Heritage Site crammed with caves, ancient wall paintings, hills where hardworking ‘campesinos ‘ (farmers) are making sure that they grow the best quality tobacco for the world wide famous Cuban cigars. This is where 90% of the tabacco comes from. I visited a farm and got a great idea on how they harvest then dry, then ferment the leaves. what machines are they using if its a lower quality..the best quality ones are rolled by hand. Best brand is Cohiba . Talking about cigars I visited the rum museum in Havana..they are very proud of their rum. You can get a bottle of rum from 4CUC (2.20 pounds )..most certainly it’s not the best quality white Havana Club.

In Vinales I did an afternoon horseback riding..again fabulous experience just like in Argentina 2 years ago..the horse represents freedom for me..I was running through the green fields with that beautiful horse..made me so happy..saying that i paid for it next day..moral of the story do not go horse riding in shorts no matter how hot the weather is!

Valle de VinalesVinales main street Baseball, the national sportThe farmer guide in tobacco plantationTabacco factoryLove40km bike rideBiggest cave in CubaPre-colonial wall painting

I did a day trip to Punta Maria la Gorda as it’s a world wide famous dive site. I have to admit it was not worth the hassle..3 hours drive down there, 3 back to Vinales for a turtle and a lion fish??oh well.

After Vinales I headed to Playa Larga. Lovely place and possibly the best Casa particular I stayed in. Oh yes..I don’t think I mentioned the casa particular concept. So. If you would like to experience the real Cuba plus save some money stay in private homes. The houses renting out rooms have the following sign on them: (blue little anchor)

Casa FrankPlaya Larga

You can just arrive at a place and start wondering around if you survive the gang of jineteros wanting to ‘sell you’ a casa particular and see if they have availability. How it works?

You arrive, they ask for your passport and visa (tourist card). They have  a little official book where they put how many nights you are staying, you need to sign and pay in the end. Most of them will offer you breakfast (worth 3-5 CUC including juice of Guava or Pineapple, Mango or Papaya, coffee, bread, salami or ham, and tortilla, some vegetables like tomato and cucumber) I always ate in the house..the reason behind it was that a night can range from 15-25 CUC for a single person. In Havana it’s the upper end. Outside you can bargain for less. I stayed most of the places for 15. They are making their money on breakfasts and dinners. Eating in a casa particular is not cheap but this is a great way of experiencing some different food than pizza worth 5 moneda nacional or criolla food. Also like this you are putting the money in the pocket of the casa owners and not the one of the Castro brothers.  In my whole stay in Cuba I ate about 5-6 times lobster..prepared by the casa owner in different ways. Dinner can cost from 7-10 CUC. Many of the  casa owners know each other. What happens in the end, you get the bill and an address wherever you go next. They send you to their ‘friends’ or relatives’ houses in the next city – bear in mind if you accept this and they make the reservation via phone usually you stay on the same rate as you were in the previous casa.

Tourism is very much controlled by the state..nobody can just easily make money of tourists unless they cheat..saying that there is always opportunity for that..Spanish is a weapon..

Internet: Cuban people are banned from the capitalist world. They cannot have internet at home..even in hotels wifi rarely exists. They sell these one hour or 30 mins cards where you scratch your username and password and you can use those in ‘Telepunto’-s. Hotels have different type of cards. The queue for the internet is usually minimum an hour. you need to find out who is the last one, once it’s done you let the person after you know that you are going to buy an ice cream or something but you will be back and your place is secured. Imagine being a university student..and you are deprived from the internet. You have out dated books written years ago since when the world has changed so much and you cannot access the latest information. Not great..

So In Playa Larga I did a day of diving. Saw some amazing things..did a cave dive which was a stunning experience! the way the sun is shining into that little whole ..It was quite scary jumping into the water as the walls were so close so you had to jump right into the middle in order not to hit the walls..

1,2,3 jump!Cuba Diving

I met a great group of people as well in Playa Larga with whom we went out for a night coconut hunt to the beach and had some ‘Coco Loco’ rum and coconut water..best combination!

Next stop was Cienfuegos..famous jazz singer Benny More’s favourite city in Cuba. I stayed at Livia’s house..she was a kind of grumpy severe and strict mother type who said it was dangerous going out alone in the dark..so I stayed in all 3 nights and she was willing to chat to me very little..

On the last day in Cienfuegos I did a tour to El Nicho (land of waterfalls ) and met Andre very nice guy who was heading to Trinidad too. I was so happy, finally I could go out cause i had some male company. It’s not the danger that hold me back from going out but the guys (jineteros), I just knew as soon as someone talked to me that he wanted my money or make me fall in love with some stupid untrue story and i did not want to hear bullshit and be exposed to this. So i rather stayed in..but in Trinidad out of the 2 nights I spent there we went for a great latin night in the Casa de la musica and Casa de la Trova and then to the Cave disco up in the hills – shame the music was not great on this latest place cause they ‘venue ‘ is cracking.

Trinidad Trinidad drink Beauty

After Trinidad i took the bus to Santiago de Cuba – 12 hours only day bus, where I met my 2 little princesses, Christina and Clara from Denmark. Very young girls (18) with no Spanish..perfect target for jineteros..In Santiago I realised another layer of tourism..old European men having young 20 year old Cuban ‘girlfriends’..I guess it’s a mutual benefit..They get their fun company for the day and night..and the girls get the money, fancy dinners, presents..An English man shared his ‘love story’ with one of these Cuban girls who joined us on the bus for the last 3 hours of the trip..he had enough of the constant nagging for money so he packed and left..but realised later how miserable his life was without the young lady..so in great fear of being slapped he returned to Santiago as a ‘surprise’ sipping a whole bottle of Havana club on the journey to beat the fear..shame that the rum was stronger than him…he got absolutely hammered by the end of the trip and could not walk straight..now that deserves a slap…but not the reason I would think..but hey..it’s his life.

Santiago cannot be compared with Havana..Havana had authority and a charismatic elegance. Santiago was poorer but had some charm too. I met a doctor here..well ex doctor. Very sad story actually. I reminded him of his long lost Hungarian girlfriend, Kati which emotion triggered the rest. He was ‘celebrating’ his day of freedom from prison where he had to go because he spoke up when the government withheld the donations of his clients from him..He was sentenced for 1 year and 2 months..and was banned of being able to continue his career as a doctor..those honest tears in his eyes made me cry too..along with the Danish girls..all of a sudden reality hit me..I experienced this through a real example…a person deprived of his career wearing his elegant jacket and jeans..shame that they jacket had more holes than a piece of emmental cheese .

Dr and Danish girlsBookstore Main square Piedra grande

The next stop together with the girls was Baracoa. I was so excited about Baracoa. People were saying excellent things about it…the amazing cuisine, the charming little town, the national parks around..

Baracoa is famous for it’s chocolate..but if you go into the expensive chocolate museum where all you can do is buy chocolate you will see that there are no prices displayed..meaning they can price a little tiny chocolate as a CUC or 40 cents..and they will not remember what price they told you a minute ago..so i wasn’t impressed.  The town itself did not offer much apart from the charm of a little town. It had a castle with an expensive hotel in it, great view from there to Baracoa and the Caribbean sea. Another option is to hike the Yunque mountain for 13 CUC…I mean if it was a national park I would understand..I think I burst out at that point because you cannot charge someone to climb a mountain and then when refuse to do it and walk back towards Baracoa you run after them and give them a discount..not when you said earlier that these prices are government set prices..

Anyway apparently the view is nice from the top. Another option is to hire a bike and go to Playa Manguana (Manguana beach- 50km return). Enthusiastic chefs are waiting for you and offer you great lunch starting at 10 CUC..could go down till 5..make sure you fix prices of juice and everything you order cause if not you end up paying more for a juice than for a lobster:)

lobster

I spent 3 night here and the plan was to continue to Holguin on the north coast and stop by the Alexander von Humboldt national park but with an onward journey the same day. As most of you know I am not a big fan of organised tours so I found out that there are jeeps going to Moa every morning and the trip should not cost more than 4 CUC to the national park (Cubans pay 2 CUC till Moa and the national park is half way between baracoa and moa) and a tour costs 25 CUC more or less… All this information came to my knowledge through a ‘helpful’ man i was chatting to on the square. He told me all these budget options, in return I arranged a direct transport for the Danish girls in 2 days’ time for 70 CUC..I thought it was a good price between the 2 of them considering the distance..it’s about 6 hours from Baracoa on a very bumpy bad road. The girls were over the moon.

Next day I took an early jeep and got to the national park by 8am..there were 8 guides sitting there waiting for groups to arrive. There are 3 options in the national park. A 5hour walk, a 3 hour walk and a boat journey in the bay. I wanted to do the 5 hour walk. Turned out it starts 10 km away from the national park so I would need a car to get there…and even though the walk with the guide costs 10 CUC you need to provide your own transport..It was foreign to me..none of the countries I have previously been to ‘offered a guided tour’ with no transportation!! Anyway..I had to wait for the ‘organised tours ‘ from Baracoa to arrive..I was waiting till 11..the guides said even if a group arrives now they do not think that i can continue my journey after the walk to Moa and Holguin..I would need to sleep in the national park. I did not know that there was an option to do so. There was a big house with 2 dormitories and mosquito nets..it reminded me a tiny bit to the Lost City..I was very happy to stay there for 5 CUC a night. They warned me though that I would be the only person sleeping there and there is only the night guard apart from me but I was up for it! So..no group arrived who wanted to do the 5hour tour ..in the end I joined a German couple on the 3h tour. Very disappointing..all I saw worth mentioning was the smallest frog in the world and some lizzards..got to know a few types of plants national to the park. After that I did a boat tour as well and I saw some crabs and it was really tranquil and beautiful to swing in that boat. The evening was exciting once the sun went down..I started to hear noises so I prayed not to need the bathroom and to fall asleep quickly. in the middle of the night it started raining ..had no clue if the rain could go into the room or not cause it was hammering down. In the end it was all fine. My plan was to get up early and get on the road, watch the jeeps passing by cause I knew the girls left Baracoa at 7am so they were supposed to be there at 8am. pretty punctual! I got on the jeep and I started to wonder about this 70 CUC deal..cause I realised local people were travelling too again pulling out their 40 moneda nacional for the trip to moa (2 hours ) ..but the realization happened when the guy stopped at moa and said we need to change to another car to Holguin. I got so angry..started shouting at him. I said the girls paid 70 CUC for a DIRECT PRIVATE journey to Gibara..turned out it was arranged only till Moa..I asked the girls how much they paid and they gave the man 40 CUC who put in his pocket 20 and gave the driver 20 to take us to Moa..the rest was irrelevant to him. I felt betrayed and if there was a police man I would have definitely made a complaint about this..All we could do is look for a car to Holguin. Again we were not the only passengers in the car but the driver already knew what happened with the previous driver so he made it very clear that we are renting his jeep.we were already on the move..so I said to him no Senor. If we were renting your jeep there would not be any other people apart from us in the jeep. He stopped and started shouting that he needs 30 CUC from us..of course he heard we were quoted 70 till Gibara and he wanted 30 till Holguin (Gibara is still another hour from holguin) I said we pay no more than 12 CUC to you ..he agreed to it in the end..and STILL upon arrival to Holguin I had to raise my voice again when we wanted more money than 12 CUC..he said..YOU RENTED THE CAR I said No..ask the rest of the money from the other 4 Cuban people travelling with us in your car..Of course he knew he couldn’t ask for this money..Cubans would never pay 4 CUC a head …so this is what pisses me off in Cuba..the 400% profit that they are working with..I know the reason is that their economy is screwed but still..cheating backpackers is NOT ACCEPTABLE AND I am confident to say that the level of overcharging I found in Cuba was this high in any other countries I travelled.

Humboldt

The girls were very grateful of might fight for them..it wasn’t only for them ..I obviously contributed to the overall 70 CUC cost  too. That was the point when I was looking forward to arriving in Mexico.

I got to Holguin around 2pm and the next bus to Camaguey was at 7.30pm..so I had time to look around. Holguin is the city of parks. Very nice, I imagine has a great night life as well. Met a nice man at the station once i was done visiting who took me to a CD shop so I could buy a few Cuban CD-s. I cannot wait to listen to them!! took the bus and got to  Camaguey around 11pm. A motor taxi was waiting for me and took me to the casa particular where I was sent from Baracoa. Lovely big room with ArtEx design (Artex is a decor shop in Cuba..the only one:) and lovely owner. The strange thing is that in some places you have a completely different separated room/space but still you have no key to the front door only to your room. So if you come home in the middle of the night they rather wake up and open the door for you than give you a key. I had only in 2 places my own key to the front door.

So Camaguey..well..luck was not my best friend in that period of time..Camaguey was getting ready for its 500 years anniversary of foundation therefore all I could see is crains, dust, new asphalt on the streets (which I managed to get stuck in with flip flops ), a full day without water and electricity and I could go on…The next day I decided I will try the experience of travelling on a truck! There are these trucks on the road transporting around 40-50 people..incredibly uncomfortable but very authentic. You won’t see any tourist on these buses..You pay moneda nacional. I arrived at the truck station at 9am..was one of the first ones to board. Needless to say the truck wouldn’t leave half full..So..departure time was 11am:) 2 hours roasting in the sun in an iron car with wooden seats ..luckily there were some really nice people on the truck..one particularly liked speaking LOUD..so that the whole bus could hear him. Once he spotted me I was ‘dead’:) He was joking around, speaking loud to me, putting me in the spotlight while sharing his own little stories with tourists when he was a fisherman in one of the Cayos. I was asked about my daily salary, about the level of live in the UK and Hungary, about my boyfriend, we discussed how many times Cuban people make love a day..(this is an interesting point by the way and I shall address to people married for long time..there is no such things in Cuba like no sex without a month…or even 2 weeks..or even a week!!!) and many other topics occurred. At some point he pulled out from his ‘Mary Poppins like bag’ a great big knife..I kinda jumped a little..but then I realised, he is ‘only’ trying to sell these..well what are people doing for 2 hours on this bus apart from looking at me? Buying knives! He sold about 20..Quite random item to buy..’Hey, do you need a knife?’ ‘Actually..yes’ ‘Ah great! 50 pesos!’ 🙂

empty truck photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

Upon arrival to Ciego de Avila I was very much counting on that 2pm bus that would have taken me to the closest town to Cayo Santa Maria..this is the island I booked back in Havana with Ben as a nice closure of my Cuban holiday. I was told that this was the only island where I didn’t need to fly to. So I planned to arrive to this town fairly early in the afternoon so I can arrange some kind of transport for myself to the Cayo for next morning. As we say in Hungary ‘ Ember tervez, Isten vegez’ ( Mankind plans, God executes). There was no 2pm bus..even though I read there was in Lonely Planet. They cancelled it about a month ago. So I could have gone straight to Santa Clara instead of bumping for 2 hours on a truck..although it was good as it was..the truck journey was one of the best ones I had in terms of chatting to local people.

So I went to Santa Clara this time on a local bus where in theory I am not supposed to board (mentioned earlier separate bus for Cubans and tourists because of huge price difference), so I paid what Cubans paid. For the first time nobody tried to overcharge me. The bus driver promised that he would take me to Remedios (another 43 km from Santa Clara) but he changed his mind in the end so had to take a taxi and the plan of getting to the place ‘early’ happened to be 8pm. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sort transport anymore but I had to talk to people cause the owner of the house said taxi is the only way…of course..what else should she have said..knowing that I am going to go to an all-inclusive resort..she will not say that ‘ Hey Senorita, why don’t you try to get on the bus what the workers take?’ I met an old man in a bar who was so nice..I bought him  juice and he was immediately in ‘helping mode’. He talked to a few friends of his who suggested all to go to the bus station the next day around 7am and try to get on one on the workers bus. So..this is what I did..no questions were asked why am I boarding with 2 backpacks a bus where all inclusive resort people are travelling on..I just call it the bus of shame..cause I knew what was in their heads..they were all thinking..you going to this place on the bus that we take?? to be honest..It was another experience. you see all these people in kitchen, garden, reception outfits heading to the hotel serving the guests..they only nice on them is the outfit..their backpacks have millions of holes and are ripped..yes, they earn 10 moneda nacional a day. That is about 20pence a day..why? Because the government knows that they will get tips from the hotel guests..to make sure that they will not get rich they almost work for free..

Cayo Santa Maria is a place that you see on the postcards. Turquoise water, lovely hotel with massive swimming pool..and all Canadians. Why? Cause US people cannot come:) They all go to Cancun. These people are arriving with 1 liter or 1.5 liter containers so they don’t need to go up to the bar every 10 minutes to order a Pina Colada or Mojito. I wasn’t this prepared considering that this was my first all inclusive experience. Set time for breakfast, lunch, dinner. It’s a little wonderland. The Cubans make sure to provide a full wonderland experience..while they are in hell:(.

All those people who were in those resorts had no idea about Cuba..about the double currency, about the propaganda which describes the country ..the frustration people are living on a daily basis.  The island is called the Island of the City people..cause all they want to do is relax..they don’t want to hear how bad the situation in Cuba is..they want to get their tan, eat, drink, sleep. During the night different entertainment is provided for the people in the Theater. On Friday there was a Michael Jackson show and on Saturday a Cuban show. Both very nice. I spoke to only Cubans in this place..Of course families would not talk to me..it’s not backpacking scene:)

pueblo Beach from towerCaribbean resting

On the 2nd of February my transfer arrived at 2pm..I was leaving wonderland..and leaving Cuba. One more night in Havana..well half night because I had my plane to Mexico City at 6am on the 3rd February.

Would I agree with the signs below?

Our town is patriot or dead. Viva the revolution! Cuba will never gonna return to its old-self! DSC_6954

Definitely no! Neither Cubans do…but they cannot say it..or do anything about it.

This country touched me so much..I had such a mix of feelings travelling here..I had some very emotional moments listening to people’s stories..being ‘victim’ of no care..and tourist exploitation, having the frustration of not finding stuff, going around in Baracoa  a whole afternoon for a piece of cheese..waiting for my turn in the internet point..sometimes hours..

But the thing is Cuba is changing. It has already changed a lot. I saw a few Adidas shops..Cuba has to change and it will…the question is when..as a Cuban man said: ‘Yes ..it will change, but by that time my life is gone.’ So again we are here..cannot emphasize enough..People! Appreciate what you have..don’t be upset about small things and things you cannot change. Do whatever you feel like doing in the present because tomorrow might never come. Go to Cuba and dance..learn, help!

Comments
  1. jeanny says:

    Hello! Good to hear from you!! I really do appreciate my birthday message!!! :):):) I remember queuing for the internet at high school! 😀

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