Archive for April, 2015

Santiago de Cuba – a reflection of past glories.

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

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It’s 270km from Camagüey to Santiago de Cuba – it seemed a lot longer.

To start with the bus was late and then the air conditioning broke down.

The ingenuity of the Cubans came to the fore yet again. Not only did they carry spare parts in the bus but the driver and co driver were able to carry out the repairs.

As it turned out we were only 55 minutes in leaving.

The vast plantations that we had seen in the western regions had given way to smaller market gardens interspersed between cattle, sheep and horse grazing.

The land seemed to be dryer, the properties poorer and the roads weren’t as good.

At some points we were reduced to a crawl as the driver negotiated potholes of ‘Uzbek proportions’

Then the land opened up again and we were back to cane fields and rice paddies, all under irrigation – probably fed by the Rio Cauto.

At the end of the long journey, the seats felt harder and the air-con was failing again.

We were picked up at the bus depot by a Mercedes Benz – it had seen far better days.

Our Casa was outside of the old town again, which was rather annoying. The family were pleasant and the room was very quiet.

A good nights sleep at last.

The area is the formally posh part of Santiago de Cuba, that was abandoned after Castro came to power. Just near our Casa was Avenue Manduley, a wide, tree lined boulevard with many magnificent old homes on large landscaped blocks.

There was a combination of styles ranging from Italianate to Grand Spanish Colonial.

One of these beautiful old mansions, Palacio de Pioneros, is now a development centre for gifted children.

As part of it their playground equipment there is an old MiG fighter.

Just off the main street the homes were more modest but still large and on freestanding blocks.

This area was having somewhat of a renaissance as many of the houses were being renovated.

The next day we made the long walk into the historical centre and just slowly walked around. The temperature was now in the thirties and we were looking for shade at every turn.

Plaza Dolores is a small square just outside of the old city area. It was our first cool drink spot for the day.

There were a few more.

There seemed to be a strange system of service, with water, coffee and ice cream all coming from different vendors, but brought to us by one person.

This would have something to do with the very erratic state of supply in Cuba.

I suspect our waitress made a commission on each sale.

Bacardi Rum was established Santiago de Cuba in 1862, where they made their very distinctive ‘white rum’. Here there is a very grand museum, in the original distillery, dedicated to the Bacardí family.

Facundo Bacadí Masó, the first Bacardí, was born in Sitges, near Barcelona in 1813 and died in Santiago de Cuba in 1886. Within those 73 years he laid the foundations for one of the world’s great rum brands and the world’s largest privately owned spirit companies.

Santiago de Cuba have their own version of Carnival and they have a small museum to celebrate this festival.

It’s a very humble exhibition with costumes of past winners, photos and other memorabilia.

There is a resident graphic artist whose main task is to design posters for the event.

These were all done ‘Old School’ – by hand, with paint and brush, on an easel.

There was not a computer in sight.

Parque Céspedes is the focal point of the old city and it’s surrounded by elegant buildings. Apart, that is, from the rather plain Banco Nacional de Cuba.

The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, sitting at one end of the park,  is undergoing massive restorations so the exterior view was all that was available. We did however get a sneak preview of the interior works – this was of course for a small fee.

Opposite the Catedral are the municipal offices, Edificio del Antiguo Ayuntamiento.

Also on the square is the house that was built for for the first governor, Casa de Diego Velázquez. This is said to be the oldest house in Cuba.

We meandered down to the port area via the Tivoli, or old French quarter. It was near 5pm and closing time for the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina. This is a former police station that was attacked on November 30, 1956 as a diversion for the landing of Fidel and his group on the yacht Granma.

The port is a sad reflection of what must have been colonial times.

There was one small cruise ship and not much more.

We have seen abandoned tram tracks in Havana, Camagüey and now in Santiago de Cuba. What narrow minded forefathers would replace electric trams with diesel buses? Cuba is not alone as we have witnessed this in France and of course in Australia.

Santiago de Cuba is a city of touts.

For every one that approaches you, and there are many, and there are at least a dozen more waiting in the shadows planning their move. It’s a pity their enthusiasm doesn’t rub off onto the restaurant staff.

Service here is the worst we have seen and most staff just don’t seem to want to do their job. It’s no wonder they are jaded as they continually have to apologise for not having the essentials.

We returned to the Parque Céspedes in the late afternoon. There was a small band playing a variety of music and directed by a clarinet player who seemed to have little control over the  group. After the music finished we went to the rooftop bar of the Hotel Casa Granda, that’s adjacent to the square. We got there early enough to get a table on the edge of the balcony, overlooking the park.

This was the place to be, as it was facing west and we enjoyed a cool drink as the cruise boat sailed into the sunset.

This is the hotel and bar that features in Graham Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana’.

There is an extra charge of 2 CUCs but it’s worth it.

Our last day in Santiago de Cuba started with our Casa Particular owner telling us we were due to leave that morning, as he had our room booked for that night. This was an issue as we were booked to fly out the next morning and now found ourselves with nowhere to stay.

It took time and effort to find, and then book into a hotel. We were helped by the owners who were ever apologetic. It wasn’t their mistake, but that of the booking agent, who had failed us yet again.

We didn’t want to move to another Casa as we needed to leave very early the next day, so we booked into the Hotel las Américas. Here we got a bargain basement deal.

It’s no wonder as it was a very shabby, 1960s, government run hotel and just around the corner from here we had been staying.

Having paid for a cheap bed we walked down the road to the much grander Meliá Santiago de Cuba to use the last of our internet card and enjoy their more luxurious surroundings.

Then there was an earthquake.

It wasn’t very big and didn’t last long but it did prove, once and for all, that you should expect the unexpected in Cuba.

Camagüey, a city in hibernation.

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

 

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It’s 220km from Trinidad to Camagüey so we decided to take the Viazul bus and not a taxi.

This was done partly to save money and partly to experience Cuban public transport. But it was mainly a result of our agent, Yosvany, vanishing into thin air. After making initial contact in Havana he was to organise all the accommodation and arrange transport.

Suddenly the transport became our responsibility.

There is a rail line that runs from Havana to Santiago de Cuba but this  is notoriously unreliable with a timetable that is a mystery, even to the locals.

We left Trinidad on Highway 12 and headed east joining up with the CC (Carretera Central) near Sancti Spiritus.

The road over the central plain was in good condition, with mangos, bananas, sugar cane and peanuts growing along the way.

Our Yutong coach wasn’t as new as the ones used by Transtur but it was air conditioned to an arctic temperature and the seats were comfortable, if not a little on the nose with ingrained BO.

We arrived in the late afternoon and went straight to our Casa Particular.

It was a bit too far out of the centre for our liking, but the walk wouldn’t hurt us, especially after sitting on the bus for hours.

The walk back after dinner was a little more annoying

Camagüey is a labyrinth of winding streets intersected with small parks and squares.

The GPS on our Triposo App maps had been working perfectly until we arrived in Camagüey. Now it decided to quit – just when we needed it most.

There are different theories as to the origin of the town plan. One, that I like, is that it was deliberately made to be a maze in order to confuse the pirates who would often raid the city.

Whatever the reason it has resulted in a layout that leaves the town very disjointed.

Compared to Trinidad, Camagüey is light on for tourists. So much so that we were continually bumping into people who had been on the bus from Trinidad.

There are still the touts but they are less frequent and not nearly as persistent.

After booking our bus tickets to Santiago de Cuba, our final destination, we went wandering around the old town.

The first stop was the Parque Ignacio Agramonte and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.

Camagüey isn’t just sleepy, it’s gone into hibernation. The Museum of San Juan de Dios, in the square of the same name, was closed for repairs.

Winter is the height of the tourist season in Cuba, yet there is a reticence in Camagüey to embrace visitors.

This is Cuba’s third largest city and well and truly in a time warp.

I think it’s happy that way.

Cuba seems to operate on a much more open level of corruption than we have been used to. Apart from museum staff, who expect a fee beyond what you have paid for at the door, the police seem to get free drinks at the local bars.

One of Camagüey favourite sons is Dr Carlos J. Finlay who is famous for discovering the cause of Yellow Fever. His house is open for display and is also the centre for the local Red Cross.

Plaza de los Trabajadores in another of the countless squares with Inglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad on one side and a number of banks and the radio station and convention centre on the other side.

Still walking and continually finding more hidden gems we came across Plaza del Carmen, with more street art in the small square than we had seen in all of Camagüey.

As it turned out Martha Jiménez was the artist responsible and her studio was right in the Plaza.

She is a local sculptor and painter who champions women’s rights.

For a city that is fast asleep, Martha is well and truly on the ball.

In Trinidad they understand the value
of the tourist Dollar.

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

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Our taxi driver from Santa Clara to Trinidad was Iuni.

He had very good English and drove an old white Peugeot.

He felt that Raul Castro was good for Cuba as he was concentrating on the economy and not politics, as his brother Fidel had done.

The newest vehicles on the Cuban roads are the Chinese made Yutong coaches. These are owned by the state run bus company, Transtur, and you see their blue, red and white livery everywhere.

As we drove south to Trinidad we passed several tobacco plantations. They were picking the green leaves which would then go into the warehouse to dry for three months.

Iuni gave us a choice of the route we could take.

We chose the mountain pass via Güinía de Miranda. He apologised for the condition of the road but it was only six kilometres of potholes then it was back to the relatively smooth roads.

The drive is just over 80km but it took 1hr 40m. It was a pleasant trip and Iuni was good company.

Trinidad was very different to sleepy Santa Clara, where tourists and touts were everywhere.

The Casa Histórico, centred around the Plaza Mayor, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Now with more hotels and Casa Particulars becoming available, the tourists are flocking here.

The locals understand the value of the tourist Dollar, or CUC, and are very happy to have their snap taken – for a fee.

In fact there were three old amigos just sitting on a corner waiting for a photo opportunity.

They had big Cuban Cigars in their mouths, that weren’t lit and just there for show. They went to great lengths to get noticed. One them even had a chicken sitting on his hat.

There was another guy who was wandering around town trying to sell a giant gourd.

We saw him on several occasions.

Staff from museums and public buildings can sometimes ask you to pay an extra fee for something that you have already paid for when you entered.

You don’t realise how compact Trinidad is until you climb the tower of the Museo Histórico. The town nestles between the hills to the north east and the valley that runs away to the Caribbean in the south west.

With the town being so small you get the feeling that the tourists are the largest demographic.

And at particular times of the day and in certain places, they are.

After an hour or so of site seeing in the morning we spent the rest of the day just wandering around town.

The painted houses, old cars and local characters make photography a real adventure. It’s not until you get back to the room, and download the snaps, that you realise just how many you have taken.

The next day we went down to the Caribbean.

Playa Anćon is a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach situated on a long, narrow peninsula about fifteen kilometres south of Trinidad.

The ambient sound of lapping waves blended peacefully with a cacophony of chirping birds.

It’s a pity the facilities didn’t match the environment.

There was a beach restaurant with a simple yet limited menu but there was also the Anćon Hotel – a structure second only in ugliness to the Hotel Santa Clara Libre.

Sixties Soviet era architecture has a lot to answer for.

We returned to our casa in Trinidad where the temperature had climbed.

It was time for a siesta.

A siesta does sound so much less sexagenarian than a Nanna nap.

Santa Clara – the centre of all things Che.

Monday, April 13th, 2015

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It’s about 62km from Cienfuegos to Santa Clara.

We again had Oscar as our taxi driver and this time he brought along his son, Oscar Louis, aged 15.

There was no school that day so he came along for the ride. He was studying English and hoped to go to university to become a doctor.

Well that was his father’s wish, I am not sure if it was Oscar Louis’s wish, as he didn’t say much.

There seems to be a strange system of supply and demand in Cuba.

There certainly isn’t an over supply of anything but many places only deal in small quantities of a few items.

We went to a couple of bars that only served cocktails and no beer. Another cafe that only had coffee and nothing else. Then there was the Mercado (supermarket) that had ample supplies of alcohol, shampoo, soap and detergent but no bottled water.

In 1689 Santa Clara was founded by nine families from the coastal city of San Juan de los Remedios. The main reason for the move was to get away from the notoriously ruthless pirates of the Caribbean.

Santa Clara is in the geographical centre of Cuba and well away from the coast and the likes of Captain Jack Sparrow and his motley crew.

Today Santa Clara is the centre of all things ‘Che’.

Like the other cities and towns in Cuba, Santa Clara is built around a park with grand colonial buildings on every side. Unfortunately Parque Vidal also has the excruciatingly ugly Hotel Santa Clara Libre, a town planning blunder of monumental proportions.

About two kilometres from the city centre is the rather large Che Guevara Mausoleum.

This houses the remains of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and 29 of his fellow freedom fighters, killed in Bolivia in 1967.

Che Guevara played a pivotal role in fighting the Batista regime, especially the derailing of the freight train, carrying soldiers and ammunition, on December 23, 1958.

This was a turning point in the Castro brothers guerrilla war against the US backed Fulgencio Batista government.

There is a monument to celebrate this event, The Tren Blindado, that’s situated on the spot where the train was derailed.

Apart from becoming the universal symbol of rebellion, Ernest was also a doctor, diplomat and military strategist.

Above all he was a young man looking for a fight, and he wasn’t happy unless someone obliged him with a cause to fight for.

After his success in the Cuban revolution he took on a rather sedentary life as a government leader and diplomat for the Cuban Socialist Party.

This more sedate life in Cuba wasn’t to his liking so he travelled to Congo-Kinshasa and then Bolivia, where he was eventually caught and killed, apparently at the request of the CIA.

This had the effect of turning an angry young man into a social icon and martyr.

The CIA weren’t that bright.

I do wonder how Ernest Guevara balanced his life’s choices of being both a doctor and a soldier.

Che is treated like a god in Santa Clara, which has more to do with the Castro regime than a popular belief by the local population.

Getting into his mausoleum was harder, and more complicated, than visiting the tomb of Ho Chi Min in Vietnam.

And that wasn’t easy.

We returned to Parque Vidal in the evening, as this seemed to be the liveliest part of town.

There was a dozen or so young men and boys on rollerblades playing a type of tag. There were obviously rules to this game but I couldn’t work them out.

The next day we went in search of more Che Guevara history and testaments to his greatness.

Our first stop was the Tren Blindado, the famous train derailment monument. At the entrance stands the original bulldozer, that was used to tear up the tracks, ironically this is a US built Caterpillar. It sits on a pedestal, while nearby the train carriages house a museum.

Just down the road is a small and less grandiose statue of Che, Estatua Che y Niño. This depicts Che with a small child in his arms, which is covered with sub-sculptures that are full of symbolism and hidden meaning.

We walked the long way to Lomas del Capiro, which is on a hill just outside of the city. It’s yet another monument to the July 26th group and in particular to Santa Clara’s favourite son, Che.

It gives you a good view over the city, but again the the Hotel Santa Clara Libre stood out against the skyline, like a giant green antiseptic block, the type you see in urinals.

There is little to no signage to find Lomas del Capiro and we finished up walking around two hills to get there. It was in fact just around the corner from the Estatua Che y Niño.

Once we walked back to town we were hot and needed to get out of the sun. We found La Vegnita, a cigar and coffee bar, that serve an excellent espresso.

Just on the edge of the Parque Vidal is the Museo de Artes Decorativas. This is a very small museum, that’s been a little oversold by Lonely Planet who tell you that it’s, “…packed with period furniture from a whole gamut of styles…”

We later managed to track down a shop with internet and made contact with the outside world.

Santa Clara is a very sleepy town and in a day and a half we had just about seen it all. So late in the afternoon we headed back to Parque Vidal, just to do a little more people watching.

We weren’t alone as half the town was there as well.

Town and country around Cienfuegos.

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

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There are a number of ways to travel around Cuba.

We initially chose to use taxis and our first trip out of Havana was to Cienfuegos.

Taxis sound expensive but they’re extremely cheap, especially considering the flexibility and the fact that we are solo travellers and therefore don’t want to be reliant on airline or bus schedules.

Also our agent in Cuba, Yosvany, said he could arrange everything at very reasonable prices.

Oscar was our taxi driver to Cienfuegos which is about 238km from Havana.

It was motorway most of the way, starting out with four wide lanes then reducing to three as we got into the country.

Two thirds of the way to Cienfuegos is a small town, of about 6,000 people, called Australia. This was said to have been Fidel Castro’s base of operations during the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961.

Oscar felt the roads were bad. I thought they were fine, especially compared to many we had been on.

Cuba must go down as a country with the hardest seats in the world. Most of the restaurant seats are metal or timber and none have cushions. It’s really hard to have a long, leisurly meal in most places.

In Cuba cars are divided into three distinct eras.

There’s the pre 1962 ‘Classico Americano’, the post 1962 Russian models that are mainly Ladas and the modern era with a predominance of Korean and Chinese makes and some Europeans.

We drove in all of them.

Cienfuegos has a decidedly Francophile feeling. The original immigrants were French, coming from New Orleans and Philadelphia in the US and Bordeaux in France in 1819.

Once we had settled into our Casa Particular, Hostel Damilsy, we went out to discover the area.

The city centres around Parque Jose Martí. This is a UNESCO Heritage site with a celebrated collection of colonial architecture.

We then went for a long walk along Paseo el Prado down to the Punta Gorda, a small recreational area at the end of the peninsula.

This is where the rich families of Cienfuegos built their mansions.

One rather grandiose, but crumbling, edifice was the Palacio de Valle, with it’s very Spanish come Moorish influences.

The following day, at the insistence of our host, we drove to El Nicho National Park. This was with Rafael, in his 33 year old Moskvitch. It had a Lada engine and gear box and one handle to wind the windows up and down – this was the air conditioning control.

The Moskvitch was Rafael’s pride and joy.

The horn was more of a whistle that had a variety of different tonal expressions. The most commonly used was the ‘cat call’, which was sounded whenever a pretty girl caught Rafael’s eye.

Which happened a lot.

The radio was permanently playing Salsa but was drowned out by the roar of the Lada motor as we struggled up some of the steeper gradients.

The road is notoriously full of twists and turns with mango, orange, pineapple, bananas and coffee growing on either side.

And of course there’s hundreds of acres of sugar cane as well.

We walked to the waterfall with Rafael constantly pointing out the local bird life. Either we were too slow or they were too fast, because I couldn’t get a snap of any of them.

Rafael sent us off to explore the top of the waterfall and the lookout that’s just near by.

There we were befriended by one of the local guides who took us off on a ‘secret path’ to the caves further up the mountain. He also pointed out the local flora and fauna and even found a small snake which he insisted that we all hold.

I took photos.

This was all at a cost of course, but it was worth it.

We then had our most traditional food so far, when we lunched at Rafael’s favourite local Casa Particular.

The place was a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds and one unidentifiable rodent in a cage.

It was then back around the bends and down the mountain to Cienfuegos.

We had dinner at the Cafe Cantante Benny Moré, which was very fitting, as he is one of Cienfuegos favourite sons.

In the 1950s he became known as the Prince of Mambo and with his 40 piece orchestra toured the Americas and even played at an Oscars ceremony in 1957.

Music is in the air and it’s everywhere. 

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

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We arrived in Havana late in the evening, primarily due to a two hour ordeal getting through customs, immigration and baggage claim.

It wasn’t complicated just painstakingly slow.

When we were dropped off at our Casa Particular (private accommodation) it was in the right street, but both the name and numbers was different to what we were expecting.

We never did work out what happened.

We were in the old colonial area and every bar and restaurant had live music.

This was a theme that was repeated wherever we went.

Yes, there are the old American cars and a medley of architectural styles, but it’s the music that’s the soul of Havana.

Having said that, the diversity of architecture is a treat, yet there would be only one building in five hundred that has been renovated.

The rest are slowly decaying away.

There is a plan to return this city to its former glory but it’s a long, slow and costly exercise.

Eusebio Leal Spenger is the city’s historian who has been the mastermind behind the rejuvenation of Old Havana.

Not only is music in the air but so is the aroma of Cuban cigars.

Smoking is actively encouraged, especially a fine Montecristo.

On our first morning we took the Hop-on Hop-off bus around the city. At $5 per person it was the cheapest city tour we have ever had.

This gave us a good idea of the layout of Havana and meant we could plan where to explore further.

In the afternoon we did a city walk through Habana Vieja, the old colonial area and the part of the city that has undergone the most renovation.

We ended up in the Plaza Vieja and there discovered the Factoriea Plaza Vieja Micro Brewery. This is an inspired addition to the tourist agenda and it never seems to have a spare table.

This could have something to do with the five litre beer towers that the customers line up to try.

Another example of Havana’s hospitality creativity is La Imprenta, a restaurant just near Plaza Vieja. It was formally an old print house or newspaper as it has a type themed decor and a display of old printing equipment.

It only occupies the ground floor as the upper part of the building is just a shell – like many buildings around the city.

The quality of the interior design unfortunately didn’t run to the food, as it lacked flavour, even though it was well presented.

And much to Thea’s disgust, white wine wasn’t even on the menu – that’s like having a type library without Times New Roman.

La Imprenta is typical of many restaurants that have sprung up since Raul Castro took over power and encouraged privately owned business.

It will take time, and the development of a quality restaurant supply chain, before Cuba becomes known for its cuisine.

After dinner we walked to Plaza de San Francisco de Asis only to discover an exhibition of Buddy Bears. We had seen these in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

Another result of Cuba’s isolation is the lack of Internet services.

The contemporary tourist relies heavily on being connected in order to plan their movements and stay in contact.

We certainly do.

Telstra obviously don’t have a network partner in Cuba so we were in a connectivity black hole.

The next day we went looking for WiFi.

When we did track down a connection it was in a five star hotel and all we could do was download our emails from our iPhones, but not send.

Carlos III, is the shopping centre where the locals go. It has a decided lack of any branded products, well at least brands that I recognise.

There was Heineken and Adidas and that was about it.

Consuming large quantities of fast food seemed to be the most popular shopping experience at Carlos III, so I guess buying isn’t that important.

In Havana, Cristal is the local beer and it’s drunk like bottled water is in Australia. Adults of all ages seem to have a can or bottle in their hand as they walk around the streets. This could be mid morning, mid afternoon or late at night.

On our way back from the shopping plaza we popped into the local Catholic Church, Parroquia Sagrado Corazón de Jesús y Ignacio de Loyola.

This is a large church, in a Spanish Modernist style, with a very impressive interior of high ceilings and stained glass.

Late in the afternoon we had a quick visit to the The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which houses the Havana Museum. This is a beautiful building, made from the local coastal rock and housing a good collection of colonial artifacts. It was here that we had heard a rather good orchestra perform a couple of days earlier.

More music in Havana.

On our final day we took a taxi through the tunnel to the twin forts of Moro Castle (1589) and La Cabaña (1590).

These are on the other side of Havana Bay and from there you can get great views of the city.

This is the largest fortress complex in the the New World yet it was put under siege and captured by the British in 1762.

There are so many canons and canon balls in Havana that they are used as street furniture.

In the afternoon we took a one hour trip around Havana in 1954 Chevrolet Convertible.

This was definitely on the wish list of things to do. The sky was bright blue, just like the Chevy, so it was a perfect ending to a great adventure in Havana.

There is an entire industry built around restoring and maintaining these old ‘Yank Tanks’. There are people who rebuild the engines, others that look after the bodywork and even more who recreate the interior trim and soft tops.

The only concession to modernity is the inclusion of power assisted brakes. This is a government initiative designed to protect the tourists.

In the evening we had a final stroll around Plaza Vieja and then walked down to the Iberostar Parque Central Hotel. We were primarily there to check email, this time with our laptops. We stayed for dinner, where our wine mysteriously disappeared while we were at the buffet – we had only taken a sip.

It was very quickly replaced and became the running joke of the evening.

We never left our table unattended again that night.