CUBA – TRAVEL REPORT day 5-6-7: Viñales

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.

The Viazul bus station in 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.

Buying some beers/cocktails-on-the-go.

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!

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!