Als me van Cuba één meta-ding is bijgebleven, dan dit: we leven hier in het westen in een overprikkelde samenleving. En daar raakt je hoofd ontzettend vol en moe van.
Ik schreef al dat je in Cuba niet zo heel lekker kunt eten (nou ja, je moet vaak goed zoeken). Dat klinkt misschien ‘stom’, maar eigenlijk was het ook een zegen. Hier in Nederland – en eigenlijk in alle landen waar ik tot nu toe was – vind je op bijna elke straathoek wel een eettent. Herkenbare eettentjes, ook nog: Starbucks, McDonald’s, Albert Heijn.
Hetzelfde met kleding. De grote winkelketens – H&M, Zara, Mango, Perry Sport, Hunkemoller, HEMA, Costes, Vero Moda, Only, Jack & Jones, Open32, Esprit, moet ik doorgaan? – zitten praktisch in elke stad. En anders adverteren ze er wel. En dus is er altijd de optie om iets te kopen (helemaal nu je ook digitaal kunt shoppen).
We weten, kortom, wat we leuk en lekker vinden (dankzij reclame en vaste menu’s – zie Starbucks/McDo) én dat dat altijd binnen handbereik is. Telefoonabonnementen. iPads. Auto’s. Winterlaarzen. M&M’s. Chocomel. Kauwgom. Tony’s Chocolonely. Parfum. Bier. Bodylotion. Scheermesjes. Overal zijn advertenties van Alles Wat Je Maar Wilt.
Gevolg is dat je eigenlijk de hele tijd – bewust of onbewust – de keus moet maken om NIET te consumeren. ‘Oh lekker’, denkt mijn brein als ik langs AH to go loop (of uberhaupt op een station ben, want ik weet dat op praktisch elk station een AH to go is). ‘Zal ik een triple chocolate cookie nemen?’ En in een flits, als ik langs Steps loop: ‘Zal ik even kijken of ze een leuk jurkje hebben voor dat-en-dat feestje?’
Om nog maar te zwijgen over alle reclameboodschappen die ik dagelijks tegenkom op Instagram (‘hmm, ik moet die nieuwe Tony’s echt snel uitproberen!’).
Kortom: bij elke confrontatie met DINGEN OM TE KOPEN (of dat nu om pizza, een nieuwe jas of die meditatiecursus gaat) moet je weer de afweging maken om dat wel of niet te doen. Vaak gebeurt het misschien half-onbewust, maar eigenlijk is het best vermoeiend. Helemaal omdat we 95% van al die dingen helemaal niet nodig hebben.
Eh Suus, zul je zeggen, maar dat wisten we toch allang?
Natuurlijk, ik weet dat dit geen nieuwe gedachten zijn. De rat-race en het principe van “we werken hard zodat we spullen kunnen kopen om indruk te maken op mensen die we nauwelijks kennen” zijn natuurlijk al zo vaak beschreven.
Toch moet je sommige dingen denk ik ervaren om ze te begrijpen en ernaar te kunnen handelen. Ik besefte dat ik in Cuba helemaal geen minder leuke tijd had door het matige eten. Ja, natuurlijk was ik blij als ik ergens een lekkere salade vond en natuurlijk genoot ik van de uitgebreide ontbijtjes met vers fruit, maar mijn focus lag gewoon op andere dingen.
Bovendien (her)ontdekte ik: ik heb helemaal niet zo veel nodig om me fijn te voelen. Op een fles rum, een paar sigaren en een setje oorbellen na heb ik niets gekocht in Cuba. Mijn geld ging op aan levensonderhoud en ervaringen: voedsel, vervoer, mojito’s. En ik had de tijd van mijn leven.
Vooruit, ik had van tevoren goed nagedacht en alles meegenomen dat ik nodig had. En eerlijk is eerlijk, ik baalde best van het feit dat ik geen conditioner in m’n tas had gestopt voor m’n droge pluishaar. Met andere woorden, natuurlijk is het niet zo zwart-wit en ik wil hier helemaal niet het “consumeren als geheel” afkraken.
Ik denk alleen wel dat het al zo veel zou helpen als we allemaal wat beter nadenken voor we weer gedachteloos iets kopen.
Voor de duidelijkheid: dat wil niet zeggen dat je het allemaal niet moet doen, hè. Soms word je gewoon blij van spullen. Of van een luxe fles wijn. Ik tenminste wel. Van altijd maar calvinistisch de hand op de knip houden is volgens mij ook niemand echt blij geworden.
Maar er is volgens mij een verschil tussen jezelf dingen gunnen (wat je in mijn ogen áltijd moet doen) en dingen kopen omdat je denkt dat je jezelf er een plezier mee doet. Vaak is dingen aanschaffen óók gewoon een beetje een gewoonte geworden. Of misschien wel: een gevolg van de PRIKKELS om te kopen die er de hele tijd zijn.
En op dat moment is het best interessant om eens aan die etalageruit voorbij te lopen.
Die Fitbit niet te kopen.
In plaats van weer een nieuwe fles wijn te kopen, er eentje te drinken die je nog hebt liggen.
Ever since I met her, my German travel companion Kathrin had been talking about Trindad. Kathrin had been to Cuba before, and she absolutely loves the colonial town (and Cuba, in general, but especially Trinidad).
Still, I had also heard stories about the “picture perfect” town being very touristic. Actually, that was one of the main reasons I also wanted to visit Sancti Spiritus, another town that was supposed to be “like Trinidad, but without the tourists”. And after my experience in Vinales, I was afraid I wouldn’t like Trinidad at all.
Spoiler alert: I did.
COLORS AND COBBLESTONES
Oh, pretty Trinidad. Yes, there are a lot of tourists. But, different from Vinales, there’s also a lot of Cuban street life going on here, especially if you move away from the Plaza Mayor. And yes, the town is as beautiful as they say. Some would say it’s like an open-air museum (you can choose whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing), but all have to agree there’s a nice, relaxed atmosphere on the streets. Another plus: the town is so small that it’s quite easy to walk around – everything is nearby.
As I told you, Kathrin, Jono and I took a taxi collectivo from Cienfuegos to Trinidad. Once we’d dropped our heavy backpacks at our casa’s, we went for some food – it was 3 PM and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, not even after my run in the morning. Kathrin remembered a nice place and I had one of the better meals that I ate in Cuba.
After lunch, we met Jason and Ismay at the Viazul bus station and walked back to our casa’s. We agreed to meet each other about an hour later, at Plaza Mayor.
By then, it was already becoming dark – and I have to say, Trinidad by night is a really nice place. Music on the streets everywhere and from many restaurants/bars, cocktails-to-go from street shops and just a very relaxed vibe.
(Yes, I do realize it were mainly tourists enjoying all this, but they were not the loud and annoying kind of tourists – and hey, of course we were tourists as well.) The five of us decided to go to the same place where Kathrin, Jono and I ate a few hours earlier. I wasn’t very hungry, but the mojito’s were good and while we were eating, a live band started to play salsa music.
Kathrin knew a few of the band members from her last visit to Trinidad, so she decided to catch up with them later that night. But first, we tried to find a bottle of rum. The stores were already closed and the rum at the street shops was 15 (!) CUC, but after a bit of asking around I sneaked into the casa de la musica, one of the main spots next to Plaza Mayor where you can dance salsa, and bought a bottle from that bar for 9 CUC. That’s still more expensive than it would have been at the ‘supermarket’ (for lack of a better word, because there are no western-style supermarkets in Cuba), but still a lot cheaper than drinking mojito’s in a bar.
TOUCHING ISMAY’S CHIN
Because my casa had a rooftop terrace ánd a fridge full of soft drinks, we all went here to have some drinks mixed with rum. Me, Jono, Ismay and Jason played a really intense game of King’s Cup, that we didn’t even finish, because there were just TOO MANY RULES. At one point, everybody was one another’s drinking mate, and every time before you could drink you’d have to do a push-up ánd touch Ismay’s chin, while she also was the ‘snake eyes’ so you couldn’t look her in the eyes and… I don’t remember what else, but it was weird.
And the bottle of rum was gone way too soon.
DANCING IN A CAVE
No, we didn’t fall asleep after the game. Instead, we decided to go out, because you know, in the end it WAS a Friday night.
Actually, Jason remembered someone telling him about ‘the cave’, some sort of club that was supposed to be very cool. We asked around and got the right directions – apparently, this place (also called Disco Ayala, or Las Cuevas) was also marked in my MAPS.ME-app.
By the way, if you’re going to Cuba in the near future: definitely download this offline maps app! It has saved me so many times – it doesn’t only have properly-working offline gps maps of the whole island, those maps also include a lot of restaurants, casa’s and other places (like bus stations and famous buildings).
LONG STORY SHORT: WE DANCED TILL 3 AM
…because that was when the club closed, I could have danced some more. I’m really sorry I didn’t take any pictures inside Las Cuevas, because wow, that was cool. Disco Ayala appeared to be an underground club inside a real cave. Entrance fee is 5 CUC and for that money you also get a free drink. One thing: bring your earplugs. I didn’t, and the next day my ears hurt quite badly.
But oh, how good it felt to dance for hours and not caring about anything else. I felt 19 again. ;)
The next day was pretty lazy, as you can probably imagine. After breakfast, we decided to walk to one of the WiFi squares. I waited for about 1,5 hours in a queue to get a few new WiFi cards (in Cuba, you have to buy cards with a code to use the WiFi – they’re about 2 CUC each, for one hour), chatted with some friends on WhatsApp and met another cool traveler, Stephanie from California. Together with her and the Australian guys – Jono and Jason – I had a really good pizza for lunch.
Because I’m really, really not used to going out anymore (I think the last time I danced the night away back home is about a year ago), I was quite tired by the end of the afternoon, so I took a nap before I met the others again for dinner.
THIS WAS THE MOMENT I GOT A LITTLE SAD
Saturday night, January 28th. At this point I’d been away from home for 10 days. And up to this moment, I hadn’t really missed home. I mean, of course I missed cuddling with Tom and talking to my friends, but I was having such a good time in Cuba that I didn’t think about it that much. Until now.
I think it was a combination of being tired, feeling lonely and the fact I’d talked to friends for about half an hour earlier that day. Suddenly I was like who are these people and what am I doing here?
Luckily, I did feel a bit better after a plate of pasta and a mojito (yes, I know..). Tonight, we were quite a big group; next to Ismay, Jono and Jason, there were two German guys that Kathrin had met earlier that day. Jonas and Johannes were good company and it was, as always, nice to meet new people and hear about their traveling adventures.
ON THE ROOFTOP, AGAIN
Another night, another bottle of rum… Only this time I skipped the drinks, because I felt what my body and mind both actually needed, was some rest. So around 1 AM, when the others were going out again, I went to bed, hoping to feel better after a good night of sleep…
…but I didn’t, mainly because of drunk roommates. Oh well, guess that’s part of traveling too, sometimes. In fact, even this was quite an interesting moment, because a) I suddenly felt very old (let’s be honest, five years go I probably was the drunk roommate), b) it made me remember to always stay on my own path and follow my intuition, even if that’s not the ‘coolest’ way to go and c) the situation gave me the possibility to practice patience and forgiveness.
Enough said. The next morning me, Kathrin and the two German guys had agreed to go Playa Ancon, a beach 20-30 minutes from Trinidad. We took a taxi collectivo there for 2 CUC each and spent all day in the sun – swimming in the bright blue sea and sleeping in the sand.
It was exactly what I needed at this point.
Later that day, Jason and Ismay joined us, too. And at night… well, do I sound too much like a party animal if I tell you we went out again?
In fact, I didn’t plan to (really!). Actually, I already changed to my pyjamas, when Ismay suddenly said: “..but Suus, it’s your last night in Trinidad!”
She was right. The next morning I’d travel to Sancti Spiritus, actually the main reason I didn’t want to go out – I hate traveling while hungover. But then again, leaving Trinidad also meant leaving all my travel companions. I’d most likely never see any of them again after tonight (except maybe for Ismay, who lives in Amsterdam). And that club-in-a-cave wás a really cool place…
SO YEAH, THEY PERSUADED ME
And we ordered a lot of mojito’s.
And we danced a lot.
And I felt young and immortal.
And I wished I could stay on that dancefloor forever.
And the next day my ears hurt even more. (Yes, I forgot about those stupid ear plugs again – from now on I won’t ever again, promise ;))
At 4 AM, I hugged and kissed everyone goodbye.
I thanked them with all my heart for the AMAZING week.
Sometimes you have to be a little drunk to find the right words. ;)
(And I still feel very thankful – guys, if any of you are reading this… you’re amazing, I love you all.)
(Yes, I do realize I’m acting a bit sentimental now.)
You know, sometimes you have those nights of going out that you regret going afterwards. For this night, that was definitely not the case. I’m happy I went. It’s good to remember what it feels like to be 20, again – even if you wake up the next day feeling all fuzzy and you have to carry your 16 kg backpack and think about grown-up stuff like ‘where is my passport’.
So yeah, the price I paid (apart from my painful ears) was the fact I didn’t really do a lot of interesting stuff in Sancti Spiritus – but more on that later.
LA DURA, LA DURA
Trinidad, I like you. Although I didn’t really do any cultural stuff (apparently you can get a really nice view over the city at a certain spot, I sort-of regret I didn’t go there), I had a great time. Trinidad is an amazing place to just walk and look around, enjoy street life and have fun with people you meet. I can imagine why Kathrin chose to stay here for almost two weeks.
I want to end this post with one of the songs you hear A LOT in Cuba these days. Cubans are totally crazy about reggaeton (in fact, salsa is mainly for tourists), and this Cuban artist called Jacob Forever produced a few decent summer hits. According to Tom, it’s actually pretty bad, but every time I hear this, I get that Cuba-feeling again. So: enjoy!
Speaking about music: what about that beep in my ear? Well, I think it’s sort of silenced now – it might have had something to do with the cold I got, too. Or least I hope so. As much as I liked the town – I don’t really need a permanent souvenir from Trinidad.
Suddenly almost a week passed. And I didn’t spend it like I thought I would… on Monday, I was very happy to go to work (really!). OK, of course I had to get used again to the ‘waking up at 6:30 AM’-part of the day, but as soon as I was in the train to Nijmegen, I couldn’t wait to see my colleagues again and get started with some writing.
Or actually: my brain was happy about that. To be honest, my body felt like crap, and I spent most of the 1 hour-train ride sleeping (which I usually never do, especially not in the mornings, because it makes me even more sleepy the rest of the day).
Long story short: after quite a fuzzy work day (despite a lot of tissues, nose spray and some painkillers I went home an hour earlier) I got into bed… and didn’t get out until Thursday afternoon. Tuesday morning I woke up with a pretty high fever (40 degrees Celsius) and I basically slept for three days and three nights, before I finally felt a bit alive again.
So uh, yeah, not quite how I had imagined my first week after a 2,5 week-vacation.
But now, back to that! After my reports on Havana and Vinales, I know you’re all very curious to know what the rest of my Cuba trip looked like, right? ;)
8 HOURS IN THE BUS… WITH FOOD POISONING
OK, that sounds worse than it was, really. First of all, I was very happy that Kathrin, the German girl I’d been traveling with since Havana and who was going to share my casa in Cienfuegos, joined me on the bus. We met each other at the bus station at 6:30 am, when Salvador (my host) dropped me off with my bag. (Thank you Salvador, for being so kind to carry my heavy backpack here, while I wasn’t feeling well.)
The bus ride was going to take most of the day. It departed at 6:45 am and the estimated time of arrival was 2:30 pm. At the time of departure my stomach still hurt pretty badly, but luckily I didn’t have to go to the toilet all the time. I’m happy to say I slept most of the ride. By the time Kathrin woke me up for the 45 min lunch stop, it was already past noon.
My ‘lunch’ consisted of a can of coke, since I didn’t feel like eating yet – and especially not food from a highway restaurant buffet. I slowly started to feel a little better though (I think by then I’d taken 6 immodium pills, so yeah) and I spent the last 1,5 hours of the ride being awake and staring out of the window – which is never boring, when you’re driving through Cuba.
When we entered the city of Cienfuegos, I immediately noticed how many texts and images of Fidel/Che there were in this town. Also, this seemed to be the first place where the ‘horse and carriage’ was still a common-used way of transportation – and not just a tourist-y thing.
I’d only stay one night in Cienfuegos; the next day, I’d travel further to Trinidad. My travel buddies – Kathrin, Ismay and Jason, the latter two took a taxi collectivo to Cienfuegos – weren’t sure yet whether they’d stay one or two nights. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded staying another night, but that would mean I’d have less time in Trinidad.
Once Kathrin and I had found our casa and unpacked our stuff, we decided we’d walk to Punta Gorda, the southern part of the city. It’s the bay area and our host told us we’d get a terrific view of the sunset at the Palacio de Valle, an eclectic-style palace with a nice rooftop terrace.
Time for a drink! As much as this looked like the perfect spot for another mojito, I figured it’d be better if I didn’t drink alcohol, today, so I had a fresh lemonade while Kathrin ordered a Cuba libre (coke + rum).
JUST ONE PROBLEM… WHERE WERE JASON AND ISMAY?
The night before, we had agreed that we would meet Ismay and Jason in Cienfuegos. Ismay and I had each other’s phone numbers, so we’d just send a text message. But it appeared that my phone hardly had any service in Cienfuegos. Finally, after many attempts, I got to send one message (in which I told her we were at the Palacio de Valle to watch the sunset), but I didn’t get a response so I didn’t know if she had received it.
I was just thinking about leaving the place and trying to find them at their casa (of which I had the address), when two familiar faces walked to our table. Just in time to enjoy an amazing seaview sunset. :)
When the sun was gone, the four of us shared a taxi back to the city centre. After a short stop at a WiFi park (Parque Martí), we went for some food. I was still a little scared to eat unknown food, but I had some fries and a few bites of salad. Afterwards, we walked to the casa of Jason and Ismay. They said it was a great place, because instead of just one room they had a whole appartment to themselves – and indeed, it was a nice place to hang out and play some drinking games.
Unfortunately, just after 11 pm their land lady decided it was time for me and Kathrin to leave, so we said the others goodbye, got ourselves a sort-of-shady taxi and went to bed…
IT WAS MY BEST NIGHT IN CUBA SO FAR
Seriously. In Havana I slept in a very basic hostel bed, in warm dormitory with 4 others and a humming fan. In Vinales I did have a good bed and a silent roommate, but the town itself was quite loud (roosters awake from 4 am, babies awake from 5 am, et cetera).
None of this was a real problem to me, since I’m quite good at sleeping everywhere, but wow, the casa in Cienfuegos had it all: an excellent bed, a silent neighborhood, perfect temperature. And I wasn’t the only one who woke up on Friday feeling totally rested – Kathrin also said it was the best night for her in days.
After breakfast, I went for a run! I really wanted to go running in Cuba, so I brought my stuff with me, but up until now there hadn’t been a good opportunity. But Cienfuegos, with its wide, sunlit streets, was perfect. I went for a 5K along the Malecón. It was hot – and I loved it.
After a cold shower and about a liter of water, I packed my stuff, just like Kathrin, and we went back to the Viazul bus station. Although I felt I’d actually not seen much of Cienfuegos, it was time to move on to Trinidad. In the end, my travel companions decided to to the same – I have to say I was pretty happy about that, because I really liked exploring Cuba together and we were having a good time.
The others still had to book their bus tickets – during the whole trip, it appeared I was quite much of a control freak, compared to the others :’) , since I’d pre-booked everything. But hey, all my travel companions had months to travel, while I only had 13 days in Cuba, so I’m still happy I didn’t have to worry about my casa’s and transportation. It really saved me a lot of precious time waiting in lines/looking for accommodation.
Nevertheless, this afternoon I did have to wait in order for the others to get ready. First of all, we couldn’t find Jason and Ismay (again…), but while I went looking for them, I did find Jono, the other Australian guy we’d met earlier. He had gone diving for a few days and was now also heading for Trinidad.
The three of us (me, Kathrin, Jono) decided to get a taxi collectivo together. That meant I’d bought my bus ticket for nothing, but it was only 6 CUC and I decided having good company – and not having to find each other AGAIN without the possibility to send text messages – was worth a few extra CUC for the taxi. Up until now, I had already saved a lot of money by sharing all my casa’s with friends.
ABOUT MEETING FRIENDS
Let me say one more thing about this ‘trying to find each other without phone communication’ thing. Actually, I thought it was quite funny and an interesting experience. You know, we’re all so used to being able to call/text one another all the time. In Cuba, you can’t rely on that, so you have to make appointments, like: “Let’s meet tomorrow at 11 am in front of this-or-that-building.” Or: “We’ll see each other in Trinidad in our own casa, around 4:40 pm. If not, we’ll meet at 6:30 at the main square.”
And somehow, things always turned out fine. Like today: just when we’d given up on finding Jason and Ismay (we figured we’d find them in Trinidad, since we had each other’s casa addresses), I saw the two of them walking down the street. I jumped out of the taxi and ran toward them. Apparently they’d already booked bus tickets for later that afternoon, so we made some solid appointments about where and when to meet each other in Trinidad.
What followed, was another really nice and bumpy ride – in an extremely rusty and creaky old timer taxi. The landscape between Cienfuegos and Trinidad is really beautiful, and the ride took us less than 1,5 hours. I’d really recommend anyone to take a taxi for this trip, since there are more than enough taxi drivers in Cienfuegos offering you a ride to Trinidad (never pay more than 8 CUC per person, though – sometimes you can get it for 6).
O yes, I really enjoyed that ride. Writing this, I actually feel a little homesick – especially now that it’s really cold and snowy outside, here in Utrecht. Can I go back?
Yesterday I told you all about the first four days of my trip to Cuba. Although I didn’t feel like leaving Havana yet, it was time to move on to Viñales, a small village in a beautiful valley 200 km southeast of Havana.
I was lucky to meet a few other travellers at Rolando’s Backpacker hostel, who also wanted to go to Viñales on Monday. In fact, almost everyone I met went to Viñales sooner or later – I think this town and the area around it are the most popular tourist spots in Cuba, except maybe for Havana. Since the others hadn’t booked the Viazul bus, they shared a taxi to Viñales, and we agreed to meet each other after arrival.
Because I’d already read a lot about Viñales on the blog of Edith (a Dutch girl whose Cuban boyfriend lives in this town), I expected quite a lot of it. I had booked a casa particular via Edith – I’d stay with her boyfriend’s aunt and uncle – and I also arranged a horseback ride via her boyfriend. From what I’d read, horseback riding was one of the main things to do around Viñales.
EVERY HOUSE IS A CASA
The bus ride from Havana took about 3,5 to 4 hours. Since I had to wake up early in order to catch the bus, I slept most of the time. The first thing I noticed when we entered the village, was that literally every house was a casa particular. You know, you can easily recognize these casa’s because of the sign next to their front doors:
Every casa is named after its hosts – for example, I stayed at casa Dania & Salvador. When the bus stopped next to the plaza in the centre of the village, I was a bit unpleasantly surprised by the amount of people trying to rent me their casa’s/taxi’s/activities.
So, uhh…welcome to Viñales? OK, of course I can understand why this happened. I mean, if I’d live in a small village and every day a bus would drop off a bunch of rich tourists, I’d also go there and try to make money out of them. Still, I didn’t really like this ‘welcoming committee’, so I quickly grabbed my luggage and started to walk away from the crowd.
On a positive note: while I was trying to find the way to my casa, at least three friendly people offered me their help (and no, they didn’t ask for money afterwards). For example, an old lady walked up to me with a picture of her casa, but when I told her I already had a place to stay, she said (in Spanish): ok, show me the address, I’ll tell you which direction to go!
WOULD YOU LIKE A GLASS OF JUICE?
Once I’d found the casa, I was welcomed by the most friendly Salvador and his wife Dania. They helped me with my backpack, invited my to sit down on one of the rocking chairs and got me a glass of mango juice. While I drank the juice, Salvador told me that something had broken down (se rompio) in the bathroom. He hadn’t had time yet to fix it, so he arranged another casa for the first night. “Of course we will help you carrying your luggage”, he added (we spoke Spanish all the time, or well, he did and I tried ;-)).
In my turn I told them I’d want to share the casa with a friend. Ismay, the Dutch girl I’d met in Havana, also would come to Viñales this day and we’d agreed to share our room. Naturally, this was no problem at all.
TIME FOR LUNCH
Because there’s no internet in Cuba and sending text messages is quite expensive, Ismay and I had agreed to meet each other in the casa. But since I didn’t know when she and the others would arrive, I decided to have lunch first.
The huge TripAdvisor-flag in front of the restaurant (‘certificate of excellence’) didn’t keep me from going inside El Olivo. I mean: normally it would scare me away when restaurants promote themselves too much, but this place was recommended to my by both Edith and one of my guidebooks.
A green salad, a mojito and some pasta with cheese – it wasn’t a real Cuban meal at all (except maybe for the rum), but it was EXACTLY what I needed at this point.
While I was eating I got a message from Ismay, so I texted her the address of El Olivo and she also ordered a salad there. (I think she’d eaten even more peso pizza’s than I did by then, so she was very pleased to eat some fresh produce ;)).
The rest of the day we walked around town with the group, that now consisted of six people: me, Ismay, Kathrin from Germany, Philipp (also from Germany), the Australian Jono and the Italian Jessica. Ismay and I drank some pina colada’s and strawberry daquiri’s at 3J’s (nice place!), and shared some decent girl talk. ;) Later that night, we met some other people on the plaza.
HORSE RIDING IN VINALES
On Tuesday, we wanted to go to the beach of Caya Jutías. All of us had heard many good stories about it; a nice, quiet and beautiful place with white sand and crystal clear water. But after breakfast, we noticed an enormous dark cloud in the sky, and our hosts told us it could even rain a little today.
Problem was I only had two days left in Vinales, and on Wednesday morning I had a reservation to go horseback riding. But with a little help from my hosts we changed the dates for the horseback ride, so we could go to the beach on Wednesday with the group. Instead, Jason (an Australian guy who had joined our group the night before) and me went horseback riding today.
HONESTLY: I WOULDN’T RECOMMEND IT
Those pictures look good, right? And yes, of course we had fun: a beautiful landscape, nice talks, great weather (yes, of course after we changed plans all clouds went away and it turned out to be another hot & sunny day after all).
Still, I could have enjoyed all of that too, by just renting a bike and exploring the valley by myself. Although it was recommended in many places, I didn’t like the horseback riding thing. Not because I don’t like horses; I just felt extremely sorry for those poor animals. Like, all the time.
Especially Jason’s horse looked very skinny and exhausted. And our guide, who commanded the horses, would hit them with an iron whip when they didn’t walk fast enough. During the trip we saw many other horses, and none of them looked very happy, having to carry tourists in the burning sun, without getting any food or water.
During the trip we visited a few places: a tobacco farm, a coffee farm, a cave. And yes, it was quite interesting to see how the tobacco farmer rolled a cigar in front of us, how he explained all about the harvesting and production process. And yes, we got to smoke a ‘free’ cigar (although of course we did pay 25 CUC for the horseback riding).
But apart from that, this whole thing was way too tourist-y for me. At the coffee farm, they hardly explained anything (okay well, they showed us some coffee beans and let us smell them, whoo). But they ‘generously’ showed us the cocktail bar with all the different options (for the record, it was 11 AM) and they proudly presented their bottles of guava rum. “You don’t have to buy, of course, but do you want one? Only 12 CUC.”
When we stopped for about the fifth time, and some random tour guide standing next to a cave tried to convince us to go inside with him (“just 4 CUC each!”), I said ‘no’. And although I had a good time talking to Jason and enjoying the landscape, I was quite happy when I could walk on my own feet again.
For the record: I don’t ‘regret’ doing all of this. I mean, it was a nice experience and sometimes it’s good to encounter stuff you don’t like – even if it’s just to notice how you react to it. But next time I’ll definitely rent a bike. :)
When we were back in the village, it was around 3 PM. Since I hadn’t had any food since breakfast (8:30 AM), I decided to go to El Olivo once more. Jason joined me and we had some decent food.
Just when my dessert arrived, someone patted my back. It was Ismay, who had gone for a walk together with Philipp. Kathrin also joined us and we decided to watch the sunset at a nice open air café just outside the village, that Ismay and Philipp had spotted earlier that day.
It was beautiful.
At night, we had some cocktails (again), and we bargained with an extremely gangster-looking cab driver for our trip to the beach of Cayo Jutías, the next day.
Our hosts had said they’d easily call a taxi for us and it would cost 20 CUC each. That would have been the easy way, but if you let Cubans arrange stuff for you, you can be sure you pay more. There’s an extensive system of comisión (commission), which means that a “helpful” Cuban leading you to a casa/restaurant/taxi/etc gets some money for that from the actual seller (of course they’ll never tell you this). I don’t judge this system – it’s quite understandable, giving the fact most Cubans get a (government) salary of 30-40 CUC (= equal amount in US dollars) per month, but as a traveller-on-a-budget it’s good to keep this in mind.
In the end, we got a pretty good deal: the cab driver would bring us to Cayo Jutías and back for 80 CUC in total – that meant a little over 13 CUC each, for a ride of about 1,5-2 hours. Nice!
HAVE TO SAY, IT WAS A BUMPY RIDE…BUT WORTH IT
Can you believe seven people plus the driver fit in this oldtimer Plymouth? Well, it did fit…more or less. ;) It was quite the adventure.. along Cuba’s bumpy roads (until this moment I had only travelled by bus and only over the main roads…well, now I know what people mean when they say “roads in Cuba are quite bad”).
I actually really liked this taxi collectivo-ride, in al its craziness. Imagine this: sitting in the front seat of the car, driving through beautiful landscapes, all windows open – a soft breeze through your hair -, reggaeton music out of the speakers (somehow all these cracky old cars do have very new and modern built-in stereo systems), the sounds of other people talking about their travel adventures…
And we made it to Cayo Jutías safely! The driver would wait for us all day – a few hours later I spotted him swimming and sunbathing as well – and we got to spend hours at this paradise beach.
I think the pictures speak for themselves.
The day passed by wayyyy too soon… before I knew, it was 4 PM and we had to go back.
I GOT HOME JUST IN TIME
Ouch, apparently my stomach didn’t really like the ‘fish in sauce’ I ate at the beach. Have to say, it wasn’t very nice indeed, to put it mildly. It just tasted very salty, but I was hungry and the other option, ‘seamen rice’ – poor translation of arroz marinara, like with seafood – didn’t sound very appealing either. ;)
Anyway, by the time we were back in Vinales I started to feel quite bad, so I told the others I’d catch up with them later. Unfortunately, I spent the rest of the evening in bed/on the toilet… Dania made me some herbal tea and brought me some plain bread to eat, and I took some medicines. Still, I was a little worried, because the next morning I’d have to wake up at 5:45 AM to catch the bus to Cienfuegos. And that would be an 8-hour-ride…
After another short night, I just threw all my stuff back into my backpack, had a tiny bit of breakfast and, still not feeling too well, walked to the bus station. Destination: Cienfuegos!
So yesterday I arrived back in grey, chilly Amsterdam, after two weeks of travelling through Cuba.
To my Dutch readers: I will write this series of blog posts about Cuba in English, so the travel mates I met along the way are able to read it too, if they like. (To the native English speakers among you: there might be some grammar mistakes in this post, for which I am sorry… I love writing but I’m not really used to writing in English anymore.)
WHERE TO START?
OK, so you might remember my latest blog post – the one about me being all scared and ‘why-the-hell-did-I-want-this-again’. Of course, I knew those OMG-HELP-WHY-feelings are part of travelling, especially when you go all by yourself. But let’s be honest, the moment I packed my stuff I wasn’t really sure anymore whether going to Cuba was indeed such a good idea. Couldn’t I just have chosen to spend these two weeks at some random beach resort?! That would have been so much easier, right?
Naturally, I was totally wrong. I had a GREAT time in Cuba. and I’m so glad I travelled around the (western part of the) island. In fact, the whole trip was so much better than I could’ve hoped for… I would definitely recommend people to visit this intriguing island (although some good preparations are in order – but I’ll come back to that later!).
On Thursday, January 19th I woke up very early to kiss Tom goodbye. Not me, but he was leaving very early today – he’d go with a friend to Paris for a few days (which was quite funny, because I had a transfer in Paris as well, only a few hours later and at a different airport).
Around 10 AM I checked my backpack one last time (it was 17 kg, quite heavy, but in my defense: I brought quite a lot of food, like crackers/nuts/dried fruits, which I would eat along the way) and took a train to Schiphol Airport. It was -5 degrees Celsius outside, but of course I didn’t want to take my winter clothes with me, so I decided to wear all my jackets at the same time – which kind of worked out.
AMSTERDAM – PARIS – HAVANA
Fast forward to about 15 hours later. At 9:25 pm the Airbus 330-300 landed at José Martí International Airport. It was amazing to see Havana from the air during night-time; the sparkly, yellow-ish lights reminded me of old lanterns and candles. “Havana is one of the few cities of the world that’s still quite dark at night”, said the man next to me when he saw me looking.
It was Wilfredo speaking, the first friend I met on this trip. Wilfredo is Cuban, but he’s lived in Spain for over twelve years. During the >10 hour-flight we had talked a lot in both English and Spanish, and he’d already given me some useful tips (‘never give in to any of the Cubans who wander around in the tourist areas…there are a lot of friendly and genuine people in Cuba, but at daytime they’re at work, not stalking tourists’).
After we waited for another 30 minutes before we could taxi to the gate (waiting is jokingly called Cuba’s national sport, and during this trip I would get quite a lot of it…well, guess it’s not a bad thing for me to practice my patience). Wilfredo suggested he could give me a ride to my hostel, since he was going to rent a car at the airport. Nice! Not only would that be faster, we could also continue our talks and it would save me 25 CUC for a taxi (= about the equal amount in euros).
Of course, a small voice inside my head whispered: is it really a smart idea to get into a car with a man you barely know? But my gut feeling said Wilfredo could be trusted, and when I saw him meeting his brother in the arrivals hall, I knew this wasn’t someone who would try to harm me.
My assumption though, that joining Wilfredo and his brother would be a ‘faster’ way to get to my hostel, appeared to be an uh, huge mistake. We waited for more than 1,5 hours (not kidding!) at the rental car office. It was way past midnight by then, and I was almost at the point of getting a cab anyway, when we finally got the keys of the car. But hey, it wasn’t cold outside, I had some crackers with me to eat and I could practice some more Spanish by talking to the two brothers. ;)
Long story short: just after 1 AM (Friday, January 20) my new friend dropped me off at Rolando’s Backpacker Hostel, where an old man opened the door for me and walked me to my room.
HOW DO YOU WANT YOUR EGGS?
After quite a short night – stumbling roommates, warmth, street noises, etc. – I had breakfast in the hostel. A kind lady served me eggs (revuelto appears to be the word for ‘scrambled’) and while I ate the fresh fruit that came with it, I met a few others – among who another Dutch girl who had already stayed in Cuba for a few weeks.
I had a few plans for this Friday:
1 – explore Havana
2 – fix some bus tickets for jan 27 (Cienfuegos-Trinidad) and feb 1 (Santa Clara-Havana)
But first, hostel owner Enrique called me to his office, where he explained me EVERYTHING about the city – in Spanish. (I was happy to discover I could understand him quite well.)
I’ll never forget the moment I opened the front door of Rolando’s. The night before, the street had been silent and empty. Now, it was all sounds and colors and scents and people. Wow!
I decided to walk in the direction of Habana Vieja, the old city centre that was supposed to be very beautiful. But once I got to Parque Central – the central park that lies west of it – I decided it would be better if I fixed those bus tickets first. I didn’t have a ticket yet for my last bus ride, the one from Santa Clara back to Havana. And since I had to take that bus just a day before my plane home would depart, I wanted to make sure I could indeed get one….
The line above is one I would hear MANY more times in the next two weeks – until it would start to annoy me and then a bit more. But at this point, I was just happy I found a cab – and yes, it appeared to be one of those (kinda illegal) oldtimer taxi’s! I bargained a bit and got to the Viazul bus station – which was about a 15-20 minute ride – ánd back for a good price. The driver, a 24-year-old guy, even waited for about 1,5 hours while I was trying to get the ticket. (Yes, I practiced the national sport again.) Oh, and the driver asked me out during the ride home – quizás, ‘maybe’, is an answer to many questions.
By the time I was back at Parque Central, I had gotten quite hungry, so I decided to walk to Café Bohemia, a nice place at Plaza Vieja that was recommended by fellow-blogger and Cuba-lover Edith. Just when I started eating my sandwich, a girl walked up to my table. “Hi, may I join you?”
Natalie from London appeared to be a very cool girl who, like me, works as a copywriter. She’d already been in Cuba for a few weeks and she could tell me a lot of useful stuff (like where & how I could get WiFi!) – and apart from that, we had a really nice chat about life, travelling, love and other stuff. We decided to spend the afternoon together and walked a bit more through the small streets of Habana Vieja.
CUBAN NIGHTLIFE…WELL, SORT OF
For a few CUC I enjoyed dinner and a mojito (okay, two) at the hostel, that had a nice rooftop bar. There were many other interesting travelers, among who a group of American guys and some Germans I had a nice chat with. We decided to go to a club at night, but in the end I felt too tired (jetlagged) to dance/get drunk/stay up late, so around midnight I decided to leave the Miami brothers (three guys who flew over from Fort Lauderdale for the weekend to party in Havana) to their drinking feast. ;)
On Saturday I wanted to go to the beach. Luckily, a few others wanted to join me so in the morning we bought a bottle of Havana Club 3 yrs and got a taxi collectivo (for 3 CUC p.p.) to the Playas del Este. The beach called Mar Azúl (blue sea) was very nice; clear water, palm trees, coconuts filled with rum.
It may be clear it was a day well-spent.
Sunday – the last day before I’d leave for Viñales! – I woke up ‘early’ again (around 8) to join the Havana Free Guided Tour. A few people at the hostel had talked about it very enthusiastically – they told me there were these two very driven guys who’d just started daily free walking tours around the city. “We walked for almost 5 hours straight, but it was totally worth it”, a Brazilian girl told me.
WALK, WALK, WALK SOME MORE
So at 9:30 me and three others from the hostel went to Parque Central to try and find these tour guides. Luckily we were just in time; Jaime and Frank welcomed us and there we went, into Habana Vieja again.
And o man, I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone. Yes, it’s quite a walk, but we got to see só much, including a lot of interesting details, like hotel rooftop bars, cool architecture and a boxing arena. Jaime – who spoke for more than 4 hours in very fluent English – even took us on a local ferry, to the other side of the bay, where we got an amazing view over the city, and he dragged us into a Cuban bus (as in: a not-for-tourists-bus) to get back to the city centre. He also had a lot of good recommendations for nice restaurants/bars around town and wasn’t afraid to talk about politics or answer critical questions.
Go check these guys out – they’re amazing and they deserve their business to be a succes. (Yes, it’s a free tour but of course you’ll give them a decent tip afterwards!)
At the end of the day, me and some others walked to the Malecón, Havana’s roadway boulevard, to enjoy the sunset. After a peso pizza (more on that later) I spent the rest of the evening, again, at the rooftop bar of the hostel. I mean, why would I go anywhere else if there are nice cocktails and good company at Rolando’s?
The next day I got a taxi at 7 AM, that dropped me off at the Viazul bus station. I didn’t feel like leaving Havana yet, but I also wanted to see more of Cuba. Next stop: Viñales!