Monday, 29 April 2013

Intrigued & Charmed by Cuba ….. April 2013

Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba:  22 – 29 April 2013

P4090011 Time for a History Lesson
During our final week in Cuba we spent as much time in Central Havana as we could, staying in the City to see it both by day and night.  We really wanted to take the time and try to understand what makes Cuba tick, to get a full understanding of the history of this amazing country and how it has impacted on the Cuba we were seeing now.  Never before has the politics of a country intrigued us so much, but then we have never spent any length of time in what is a “communist” country before.  P4240037
The Revolution!
We decided to start our “fact finding mission” at the Museo de la Revolución, centrally located in the beautiful partially restored former Presidential Palace The palace in its day would have rivalled any in the world, Tiffany’s had decorated the interior to please the string of power and wealth hungry Presidents that resided there until the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Fulgencio Batista in 1957 led by José Antonio Echeverría, a revolutionary student leader.  Bullet holes still pock mark the grand staircase as a reminder,  32 of the 35 attackers were shot dead as they fled.
We spent several hours in this fascinating museum, most exhibits were described in English and Spanish – many were photos and newspaper clippings, you could spend days reading them all. P4230008
Also housed there is the “Granma”, the motorboat that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 81 fellow  “revolutionaries” sailed from Mexico to Cuba on in 1956, to start the revolution to remove President Batisca from power and return Cuba to the people.  The landing and arrival went badly, soldiers discovered them and less than 20 men managed to escape into the surrounding sugar cane fields. 
The revolution was off to a very shaky start.  During 1957 Fidel Castro and associates slowly regrouped, recruited and reinforced their revolutionary army, meanwhile Cuba was being transformed into what was described as a military style police state.
The Castro Era
January 01 1959 marked the beginning of the current Cuba, President Batista fled to the Dominican Republic by private plane and the Castro reign began.  

Our impression of Cuban politics had us believe that Fidel Castro, and latterly brother Raul, have been dictators running a communistic government for over 50 years.   What we have seen in Cuba however,  is not actually what we expected of a communist government – we expected an oppressive reign, a communist dictatorship  – this was not what it felt like.

There have been many phases in Cuban history over the last 50 years that have had dramatic impact on the Cuba we see today, but Cuba seems to have coped with what has been thrown at it and carries on relatively unscathed.

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The neighbourhood looked somewhat rundown but La Habana Colonial Green House was a great place to stay
However, The following applies – to the best of our knowledgeP4230025
  • nearly all business is state owned and operated, however Government controls are weakening  
  • all income is fixed and to the best of our knowledge everyone is paid the same monthly wage whatever their profession.  We understand that income is somewhere between the equivalent of US$25 to US$50 – monthly!  Nobody really wanted to discuss it but that sure doesn’t seem like much money 
  • coupon books are provided for some food items, we do not know the quantities.  Most produce we saw was of quite poor quality but very cheap,  we didn’t see anyone that looked like they were starving 
  • there are only state operated TV channels, very few people have mobile phones and certainly not smartphones, internet is quite restricted and available mainly to the tourist sector.  Wifi was only available in a couple of 5 star hotels, internet cafes are very rare and are intended only for tourists
  • free education including university level is provided for everyone and Cuba is proud to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world
  • free health care is also provided for everyone and is said to be very good.  Qualified Medical Staff are encouraged to go and work offshore for 2 years.  If they stay away longer it is made almost impossible for them to return, even on holiday  
  • we did not see any visible signs of any homeless and housing is provided but we understand rent is payable


No Money to Spend ~ So No Shops???

There were some “label stores” in Havana, selling items at prices you would pay anywhere else in the world.  But outside the tourist areas there were very few shops, you don’t – as a rule – see a street with what we might call regular shops - clothes, shoes, appliances, books, chemist, food etc.  But as you walk down residential streets many houses have their front doors open and if you peer inside you might see a box of toothbrushes for sale in one, 6 pairs of shoes in another, some freshly baked cakes next door.  All quite bizarre really but we had the overwhelming impression that everyone was doing ok, getting everything they needed and seemed happy enough with their lives.P4230013

We saw no signs of any drug use or abuse, rum and beer are freely available and quite cheap but we saw no one drunk, we never felt unsafe yet saw very few police (just one from memory).  Crime levels are said to be very low and possibly this stems from the fact that everyone has the same so there is nothing to be gained ~ interesting thought!

Simplistic Views

We accept that we have just touched the surface of this totally intriguing country and those that have spent much more time here will possibly disagree or debate what we have said. P4230031 Some friends that have travelled there thought Cuba was a mess - the food rationing was inadequate, the inability to go and buy just what you want was suffocating, the state controlled enterprises in these times archaic, no freedom of press and controlled access to World News and no access to the internet appalling. 

And yes, if you compare all of this to the 1st World countries we are so lucky to have been born in then the Cubans have it tough.  However if you look at what the Cubans have compared with what some of their Caribbean and Central American neighbours have then they are doing great. 

We imagine many Haitians who live only miles away in famine and disease stricken neighbouring Haiti, might actually think Cuba was paradise.  If they had a home with electricity and water, food, clothing, education and health care provided would they be worried they couldn’t check their emails, watch CNN news or that it was beans ‘n rice for dinner again ???


Enough Said on PoliticsP4240039

Havana is an amazing city and you could spend many days here exploring all its central districts before even scratching the surface of the outlying areas.  We did the Double Decker Bus Tour (bargain at $5)  to view the cities periphery ~ we passed the cemetery which encompasses 15 blocks, circled the Plaza de la Revolucion with the biggest monument to Che Guevara we saw, toured the Embassy Quarter, and cruised along the waterfront Malecón, in a continual state of renovation. 

We did all the suggested walking tours and then just got lost, ambling down side street after side street, investigating bursts of live music wherever we heard them, peeking our noses into dark doorways and walking down dodgy looking alleys and happening upon lovely plazas and churches, schools and small markets .
There are museums everywhere, big and small, good and bad.  The buildings, architecture, plazas and most of all the cars held more than enough of our attention, maybe Cuba deserves another visit. 

Havana is a city full of soul.  Cuba is a country that has touched us like no other we have visited.  Amazing, Interesting, Intriguing, Cultural, Colourful, Classic – there are not enough words to describe it.

Go See For Yourself ~ Before It Is Too Late
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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Music & Dance ~ The Soul of Cuba ….. April 2013

Land Travel to Trinidad, Cuba:  18 – 21 April 2013

Wow – What a Gem!P4180037

We were relieved to step off the dirty smelly Viazul bus from Cienfuegos, we had drawn the short straw and were seated at the rear next to the overflowing toilet….enough said !!!. Still, the journey had been short and the scenery interesting.  It seemed like every Casa Particular (B&B) owner in town was there to meet the bus, most of them held guests names high on cards but we hadn’t prebooked anywhere and wanted to take our time to get our bearings before committing to accommodation.

As we started to wander the small cobbled streets it was apparent that we had arrived in a truly amazing place. Set 12km’s inland, elevated in the foothills of the Sierra del Escambray, this small town has had a mixed history since it was founded by the Spanish in the early 1500’s.   The mix of inhabitants has included pioneers and pirates, mercenaries and missionaries, slaves and sugar plantation workers, refugees and revolutionists.
P4180048 This diverse blend of races have all left their mark over the years, but the architecture is Spanish and it is the best example of a small town we have seen outside mainland Spain.  Handsome buildings line the cobbled streets around the Plaza Major, the Church takes pride of place at the top of the square and several nearby buildings have been restored and converted into all manor of museums, galleries and restaurants.
A restored mansion showcases the wealth amassed by the sugar estate owners, expensive period furnishings adorn the rooms, crystal and silver sparkles, and elaborate artwork drapes the walls.  
 P4180050 P4180045
beautiful colours on the buildings off Plaza Major in the early evening light
It’s All About The Music

For the locals life goes on around the coach loads of tourists arriving daily. For many of them it seems their life revolves around music and dance, so prevalent in Cuba but seemingly more-so here.
 P4180038 P4190055
There were groups of musicians “jamming away” from the moment we stepped out in the morning until the wee small hours, it seems they never stop.  Street corners, plazas, open doorways, steps – anywhere they can set up and play – any time, they are there.
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And then there is The Salsa!P4180039

Not to be forgotten are the amazing dancers we saw nightly, most of them were locals just out enjoying the music and “salsa-ing” away but there were a handful of tourists too who had all the steps and let fly.  The faster the music, the faster they danced, their feet just didn’t seem to touch the ground on the cobbled streets, they were sublime.  We sat spellbound watching, listening and sipping on Mojitos, if you want to find Cuba’s musical soul – Trinidad is the place to visit.

P4190065 We had very late nights enjoying the music so our couple of days there didn’t seem to have so many hours in them!

We enjoyed a look around the small museums and through the church, wandered around the myriad of tourist stalls selling all manor of items from plastic trinkets to some excellent artwork and fine embroidery.  We hiked up into the hills above Trinidad but it was exceptionally hot work, commonsense prevailed before we expired in the heat and we returned to the shady streets to discover life in the non touristy part of Trinidad.

Snapshots of the lively cobbled back streets
P4180046  P4190061
Are these gents selling these fruit  or are they just chatting?  The front yard barber – are the others clients or just sitting around watching?
A peek in through a chicken wire window discovered this dusty cigarette factory.
  The whole in the white wall is the butchers shop- see the carcass hanging between the 2 heads.
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 A couple of colourful fresh produce vendors with the best quality we had seen
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 At last ~ the classic Cuban scene, donkey, cart, old man wearing straw hat chewing on cigar – real life for some in Cuba!!!

P4190073We loved Trinidad with all its nooks and crannies to explore, wherever we ventured we felt welcome and always safe.  There was a general feeling of contentment by all the locals.  Everyone seemed happy with their lot, going about their daily business.
We prebooked the Transtur bus to take us back to Marina Hemingway in Havana.  A car collected us as planned from our Casa Particular just by the Plaza Major to ferry us to the bus depot.  We collected an Italian couple enroute but we never did go to the bus terminal.  3 hours later we had had a speedy return by car to Balvenie – somewhat cramped in the back but over in no time.  We have no idea what happened to the bus!

 Whether it is communism, socialism, capitalism or whatever..ism. Just throw in enough music and dance and it all seems to work!!.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Cienfuegos – The Paris of Cuba ….. April 2013

Land Travel to Cienfuegos, Cuba:  14 - 18 April 2013

P4170004 Back to Boat Jobs

After our few days away in the tobacco growing region of Cuba it was back to Balvenie at Hemingway Marina, Havana to tick off a few boat jobs.  One of the joys of being tied up in a marina is the availability of non stop fresh water and the joys that come with it – endless long showers, laundry facilities and the opportunity to give Balvenie a much needed bubble bath to wash away the crusty layers of salt accumulated during our wet and bumpy ride along the northern coast of Cuba.

The time came for more goodbyes, a big part of the cruising life. Stu and Steph on Matador were heading south to Guatemala for the hurricane season, David and Brenda on Bandit heading north before us to the eastern coast of the USA.  Happy hour was planned on the dock and all manner of instruments appeared, an excellent evening of music and merriment was enjoyed by all – wonder where and when the reunion party will be?

P4280002 P4280001 P4140006 P4140005
shopping at the local market by the marina – don’t have high expectations!

P4180014 Boat jobs completed we took the easy option again and booked tickets on the Transtur bus and got collected from the Marina Hotel for our next excursion.  This time we were the first passengers onboard so enjoyed an early morning city tour of Havana as we visited several hotels collecting the remaining passengers.  It was 3 hours down the relatively empty roads to Cienfuegos, a city of around 500,000 inhabitants located on southern coast on the shores of Cuba’s largest natural harbour.  Several cruisers that had sailed along the south coast had stopped here and enjoyed it so we decided to stop and see it for ourselves.  When the bus stopped we were the only passengers to alight, and there wasn’t even a Casa Particular owner in sight to tout for our business.  Either we had found a tourist free gem or it wasn’t worth the stop!P4180005 

French Architecture but Cuban Heart
First impressions were promising, an open town square was surrounded by classic buildings.  French settlers came here from Louisiana, Philadelphia and as far as Bordeaux in the early 1800’s, they survived hurricanes to transform this area into a mini French city.  Neglected over the decades it has now been added to UNESCO’s list and is slowly regaining its former glory.  We found a shady cafe overlooking the square, enjoyed live Cuban music and had cheese and tomato toasted sandwiches for lunch – the only item available on the menu!  P4180013

Bank or Brothel?
Our next piece of entertainment was one we weren’t expecting.  We needed to  change some money so walked to the local Cadeca (Money Exchange), the queue was a mile long so we decided to try the bank instead.  We found a building with a “Banco” sign on it, windows were all tinted , the door was locked and a couple of men were waiting outside. 

We asked if it was a bank and they confirmed it was and said we needed to wait.  Periodically women would come out in the shortest black miniskirts with 6 inch high stilettos and black fishnet tights and take one person in at a time, very few people were leaving.  P4180011Interesting!

Eventually it was our turn and yes it was a bank, all of the staff were women and there must have been a competition for the shortest black skirt and highest shoes – we couldn’t believe that was actually their uniform!  We felt it inappropriate to take photos to share the tale!

On to Trinidad

We had a lazy morning catching a Bici-Taxi out the 3 km flat road along the harbour to Punta Gorda, the marina and anchorage.  P4180008There were some fine old buildings along the seafront, some rather dilapidated, some just hanging on and others beautifully restored – much was the same throughout all the streets downtown too.  Our downtown Casa Particular had the highest ceilings we think we have ever seen in a “normal” home, way over 2 regular stories, you can tell it never gets cold there. 

We headed for the bus station early afternoon and joined a mass of independent travellers waiting for the Viazul Tourist Bus to nearby Trinidad.  It was an absolute state of chaos,  no one had been able to buy tickets, there was no indication if there were even seats available, or even if the bus was coming.  We all just stood around patiently waiting, the bus eventually showed up, cash was given to a man in the doorway, we walked across the bus station and bordered the scruffy dirty bus – the bus left full but we didn’t leave anyone behind.

 Just Luck or Organised Cuban Chaos?  

Friday, 26 April 2013

Cigars, Salsa & Rum ~ Must Be Cuba ….. Apr 2013

Land Travel to Vinales from Havana:  09 – 13 April 2013

Off to Explore Rural CubaP4120092

Following our excellent one day “reccie” trip into Havana we spent a day cleaning the latest layer of salt from Balvenie, organised our bus tickets for the following morning and got ourselves ready for our first inland excursion within Cuba.  In company with our friend Tony we departed on the tourist friendly Transtur bus for Pinar del Rio province and the small rural town of Vinales.  The journey almost retraced our steps along the coast, heading southwest inland but paralleling the ocean as we passed through rolling countryside, fields of crops, banana plantations and hundreds of mango trees dripping with big juicy fruit ready for picking – interestingly there was no sign at all of the onset of harvesting the thousands of fruit.

P4130114The countryside was interesting, there was a motorway for a good part of the journey but the roads were almost empty.  The mix of traffic we did see was entertaining - a blend of ancient farm machinery, horse and carts, taxi tricycles, motorcycles with sidecars, American pre 60’s cars, Eastern Block ugly boxes like Ladas and Skodas, Russian buses belching out the most horrendous exhaust fumes, covered trucks converted to buses jammed packed with locals, oxen pulled ploughs and the occasional “normal modern car”, we don’t think we have ever before seen such a diverse assortment of modes of transport!      

The area surrounding Vinales was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 and as we crested the neighbouring hills and had our first vista of the valley it was easy to see why.  Spectacular mogotes (limestone rocky outcrops) burst up from the relatively flat valley floor, they reminded us of landscapes last seen thousands of miles away in Thailand and Vietnam, steep sided, rounded tops – very unique.P4130149  The valley floor was a patchwork of vivid colours, large fields of recently ploughed rich red soil, pockets of still to be harvested tobacco plants, crops of maize or corn.  It was just beautiful.

Time to Try those Famous Cigars!

Getting off the bus in sleepy Vinales in one piece was no mean feat.  It is written that there are over 700 “Casa Particulars” in the valley and just a couple of smallish hotels.  The Casa Particulars are Cuba's version of a British B&B, and it felt like all 700 Casa owners met the bus to ply for our business, and there were only 16 of us on the bus -  completely overwhelming would be an understatement! 

We ploughed our way through them and escaped to the town square for a much needed coffee, however this didn’t deter the hardy amongst them who still hounded us for our business – we had much sought after tourist pesos.  We chose a Casa (around $25 double including breakfast), dropped our bags and set off around town to explore.  There is just the main street really, its a cute enough place but the main attraction is the gorgeous countryside and of course when you live on the sea it is even more special to venture inland.

Mojitos, Music & Mountain biking with Matador

We had prearranged to meet up with Steph and Stu off Matador (who had travelled down the previous day) for Mojitos, the national drinkP4120102 of Cuba – Cuban rum, lime juice and water with as many sprigs of mint they can spare, rather pleasant really and at between $1.50 to $4.00 each (depending on where and how flash/touristy the bar) somewhat affordable, just like everything in Cuba.   We spent a few hours soaking up the atmosphere (and mojitos!), listening to local bands and even fitted in dinner along the way, it had been a great day. 

Next morning we farewelled Tony, he was off to discover as much of Cuba as he could in the next couple of weeks and would meet us back on Balvenie.
Meanwhile Stu and Steph had plans to do a 34km cycle out into the countryside P4120093(they have high quality folding mountain bikes and had already cycled 100’s of km’s in Cuba) so we hired mountain bikes and joined them for some very serious exercise.  We had done some cycling in Mexico but it had all been flat, not much in the way of training! 

This was a scenic ride and to reach the viewing points there was a serious amount of hill work involved, but we soldiered on and had an excellent ride out of town on the almost deserted roads.  We certainly tucked into the local pizzas on our return to town, small pizzas for less than .50c each at the ”pizza oven in someone's front room” stalls, great value and our standard lunch fare whilst out and about.

Morning Coffee & Cigars in the Countryside

Not to be put off by our gruelling ride the previous day the 4 of us spent the next morning on the dirt farm paths out of town into the real rural farm lands. 

The scenery was just stunning, the locals so friendly, the farm paths peaceful & the weather extremely hot!  We stopped for “morning coffee and cigars” at a farm, an entrepreneurial local has built a small thatched shelter, served excellent Cuban coffee, sold farm produced organic cigars and honey, how could we not stop?

Most of the tobacco crops had just been harvested, this area is a large producer of tobacco for those world famous, top quality Cuban Cigars.  The farmers must sell 90% of their crop to the Government but the other 10% they are permitted to sell privately or smoke.  The cigars produced on the local farms are organically matured, must be good for you?! so it was time to see what these Cuban cigars were all about.  Every picture tells a story!!

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Stu and Mark seemed quite at ease cigar tasting
Whereby Steph & I didn’t quite seem to acquire the taste!
2013 Cuba
Broken Bikes and Bus trip back to Balvenie
Our bus wasn’t departing until 2pm so we had time to venture further afield and view the Mural de la Prehistorica, a 120m long mural painted on the side of a 617m high mogote.  It took 18 people 4 years to paint and apparently they continuously repaint it, keeps people employed I guess.P4130174  Maybe it was just the angle we viewed it from but it was rather hard to decipher its meaning. 
Our return journey to Vinales was somewhat eventful, thanks to me.  First I got a puncture just after leaving the mural.  Luckily Stu had a goodie bag of spares and produced an inner tube from its depths.  After checking the tyre for possible causes we saw that the tube had an existing hole which had been tied up with a piece of string!!!  With tube changed we were underway again, just under 2 hours till bus departure.  Not more than 5 minute later I got another puncture, oh dear – no more tubes.  Mark gave me his bike and decided to ride mine back with the flat tyre and off he went. P4130175  

But as we all know bad things happen in threes.  A few minutes later I heard a big clunk and looked down to find a piece of the bike (which will have a proper name) broken in two, my gears and pedals were no longer connected to the chain.  In between walking, scooting along pushing it with one foot while standing on one pedal, sitting on it and free wheeling on the occasional downhill parts and sitting and being pushed by Stu (great effort) on the flat parts we managed to get back to town, very hot, sweaty, dusty and totally exhausted only 30 minutes before the bus departure.
There was quite a heated discussion at the bike hire stall on our return with 2 broken bikes, we offered $10 for the part but they just weren’t taking it, more people arrived, phone calls were made, voices got louder – all in Spanish of course, all we wanted to do was sort it out so we could catch our bus, but we must wait.  Eventually someone comes flying in on a moped with a list of part costs, they didn’t want to take the $10 because it was too much, $7 was paid, hands were shaken and we were on our way.  There was just enough time to grab a hot pizza and a cold drink before the bus pulled out – phew, busy morning!

Back to Balvenie in Havana