CUBA – TRAVEL REPORT day 8: Cienfuegos

So… where was I?

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.

FINALLY… CIENFUEGOS!

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?

Yes, we drove in this thing for 1,5 hours – and at quite a speed, too. Our luggage was on top of the car. You can hardly believe it doesn’t fall apart, right?! ;)

CUBA – TRAVEL REPORT day 1 t/m 4: Havana

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.)

Oh, Havana.
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….

TAXI, LADY?

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?

A good book, a mojito…what more do you need in life?

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!