Monday, August 24, 2015

Cuba: Hasta La Victoria Siempre!

I was itching to go to Cuba since it just opened more to the US earlier this year. We are now allowed to go on "people-to-people" tours, but I'm not a huge tour person and they cost a fortune. Do I sneak in via a third country solo? Luckily on a chance e-mail, Jane jumped at the chance to go too. How to sneak in? Buy separate tickets from Mexico to Cuba via Aeromexico office in London.

Cuba is close. 60 miles south of Miami. Why did it take a whole day to get there?  I took an overnight to Mexico City, met Jane at the airport, got a Cuban visa then waited another 8 hours for the flight to Havana.

Havana: Time Warp

Our first day exploring we didn't make it half way down the main road before snapping tons of pictures of classics on our walk to Habana Vieja (Old Town).

Car museum!
Floridita: where the first Daquiri was made and Hemmingway frequented
Old Skool Pharmacy, still functioning but only for the wealthy and foreigners
Cuban sandwich! 
They actually exist, though this was an upscale one. The typical ones are bought in a small hole-in-the-wall shop or out of a box. Neither looked too appealing. Havana Club is the main rum, and their glasses were everywhere. This one has fresh guayaba juice. Delicious tropical fruit! Unfortunately the food wasn't that stellar. There just isn't access to a variety of good ingredients. But we did have some decent home cooked meals, and lots of seafood (lobster, shrimp, fish, crab).

Typical street in Havana

Malecon: the famous oceanside drive and walk
Guys fishing on the Malecon
Half the buildings were dilapitated, another 1/4 in forever renovation by the government (why was that crane there for 2 years, immobile?), the last 1/4 remodeled.

Jane and Me at La Bodeguita, the place where the first mojito was made. 
Unforunately the mojitos were pretty awful, and believe me, we tried a lot of them. At the end we wondered why we still bothered trying. Also, I had to go low key on the alcohol. No pina coladas, daquiris, etc. Bummer, but at least we know they weren't tasty anyways.

We took one guided tour by a Chinese-Cuban guy who was a teenager during the revolution. We rode around in his classic Opel (he was surprised when he found out that my dad had one back in the days too). We got a lot of insight into Cuban history and its people.

Government store where locals can purchase limited products (rice, beans, soap, toothpaste, etc)
Food rations
People are given a certain amount of food at very discounted prices, but it is not enough to survive on. This is the list of what you can get, how much and for what cost. For instance, you can get 5 pounds of rice for about 5 cents/pound.

Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza) en Habana Vieja (Old Town)
Government poured a ton of money into restoration but you can see the faded "Fereteria" word (hardware store) from the old times.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana: a missile from the Cuban Missile Crisis
Revolution signs everywhere!
There was USA graffiti right next to it along with a skateboard ramp.
Che "Hasta La Victoria Siempre"
"Until Victory, Always"
Revolucion Plaza
Che had a major influence on the revolution in 1959 in overthrowing the Batista Government. He partnered with Fidel Castro.

US Embassy opened in July 2015
This made us feel better about going to Cuba. Yes, the Cuban flag is about 5 times the size of the American flag. Also, right in front of the embassy is the anti-imperialist plaza. Coincidence? I think not.
View from our homestay (casa particulares)
The Cuban network is amazing! We booked our first hostel (actually homestays called casa particulares) in Havana at Hostel Pelegrino. The owners Elsa and Juan were amazing and helpful. Although, their house was full, their "cousin" 3 doors down had a room. Turns out everyone is in a connected network. So, when we wanted to go to Vinales next, Juan hooked us up with transportation, a little tour and the next casa particulares to stay at. 

Havana is a fascinating city and we could've stayed a few more days easily, but limited time meant we were off!

Vinales: the Napa of Cuba, except tobacco fields instead of vineyards

We stopped at Las Terrazas en route which was an old coffee plantation. It was suppose to be a little off-the-beaten path and gorgeous nature. It was great, but we didn't hike around at all.

New and old at an Eco Village
The Eco Village seemed to not be "Eco"-y at all. There was a lot of trash every where and I didn't see the sustainability, except maybe those solar panels above. Not impressed.

After about 4 hours en route, we reached Vinales.

Vinales! Valley of the tobacco plantations

Biking in Vinales
We came here basically to bike. We were promised that it would be "bucolic bliss" - flat and few cars. No and no. Totally not flat! And we were dodging cars, trucks, big RV-type things, horse and carts on windy narrow roads. Luckily the goats and cows were tied up to the side.

Prehistoric Mural?
We thought we were going to see a mural painted in prehistoric times. Turns out the "prehistoric" mural was painted in 1961. It's a hideous at 617 m high and 120 m wide with psychedelic looking dinos and snails. Why?! At least the bike ride there was redeeming.

Off to Playa Larga for some beach time

It was a 4 hour ride that we took with a couple from the Netherlands. It started off in a classic car with AC. What a pleasant surprise! Half way through, it changed to a little tin can with no AC. Who knew it was so hard to just sit in a car. Awful.

Our reward after the awful ride: view from our casa balcony

Ah, relaxation
OK, so we spent 1.5 days on the beach! I know, Americans "are not allowed to just relax on the beach" said many websites, but we managed to do just that!

I also managed to pick up a cough and the heat and humidity were doing a number on my head. So I felt pretty crappy for the majority of the trip, but I didn't let that stop me!

We even got a SCUBA dive in. Awesome tropical waters. Crystal clear blue and warm so we only had to wear shorties. I also saw my first tiny shipwreck!

Three friendly Italians were staying in the other room of our Casa. After we kept running into each other in town we decided to just plan our time together. Off we go!

Cruising in our classic until ...

I think we have a problem.
We pulled off the road and into a bush-like area. Hmm, scene for getting jumped by the cartel? Well, it was peak day = peak heat (100+ deg with humidity). Our driver pulled out his mechanic suit and toolbox and got to work for at least an hour. Then he just decided to just give it a go on 3 out of 4 brakes. That's 75%, passing. OK, right?

After hitting a poor man's resort and chilling one more night in Playa Larga (to say it is a town would be stretching it), we headed off to our next destination.

Propaganda lines the roadside
Guiseppe, Marco, Guiseppe, Jane and Me in our replacement car with 4 functioning brakes.
That car took us to our next and sadly last location...

Cienfuegos: neoclassical french bayside town

We really wanted to go to Trinidad, a colonial town, which was where the boys were headed, but that was another 5 hours on the road and we didn't have the time.

Parque Jose Marti, a UNESCO heritage site
Atop palace ruins of Casa Benjamin Duarte 
Palazio Azul (Blue Palace) in Punta Gorda
with ominous rain clouds in the background.
Parisian influence with a Miami feel.
Delicious tropical fruit
at breakfast every morning (always $5 at the casa)
After all our traveling around, we finally got on the much coveted Viazul (tourist) bus that was famed for being over-AC'd. It was a splendid, slightly chilly 4 hour ride back to Havana. So nice to be a bit cold for once.

Havana en route to the airport

We had a few more hours in Havana before heading back to the airport. We had one Spanish restaurant to hit up, los Nardos, Unfortunately it was a bit disappointing.

Touts hanging out in the Havana streets

Kids kicking it in the streets
What's wrong with that scaffolding?
30 years makes for good tree growth.
To the airport in our last classic ride with classic Boyz II Men en Espanol. Gotta love it!
Overall, the Cubans were really friendly and there was no animosity at all towards us Americans, just some a few surprised people wondering where our "tour group" was or how we got in. Our Spanish, although limited, took us a long way with the locals.

Cuba was fantastic! And the US let us back into the states! Whew. Hope they never find out. If anyone asks, I was in Mexico City for 8 days. I bought nothing back but a Cuban cough. I'm glad we went even though it was only for a week and it was crazy hot and humid. While I don't think Cuba is rapidly changing anytime soon, you can start to see some movement so it was nice to go sooner rather than later. A short, awesome, packed trip!