Monthly Archives: July 2016

Music in Cuba

One of the reputations Cuba has is that it is the land of music.   And while music is certainly much more prevalent and a much bigger part of the culture in Cuba than in Australia, it wasn’t quite on every street corner as you may be imagining.

music in Cuba

The no brainer way to enjoy some Cuban music is to visit the Casa de la Trova wherever you are.  Live music every day for free or sometimes a small fee.  Quite often the music spills out onto the street and there is a crowd of people outside the Casa listening and dancing.

Casa de la Trova - Cuba

While I was in Santiago de Cuba for the Festival del Caribe, there were lots of other opportunities to enjoy music as well.   Apart from during the parade, there were performances in the Casa de Cultura

Casa de Cultura - Cuba

Semi-organised jams in the street

Cuba music

Small performances in the main square

Cuba music

And large performances in the main square

Cuba music

All in the space of 2 days!

And in Trinidad, you really can’t miss sitting on the steps (with all the other tourists) listening to the free live band playing at the Casa de la Música (a block away from the Casa de la Trova).

Cuba music

Umbrellas in Cuba

A quick one to say that Cubans really have the prettiest umbrellas!   Loved the designs I saw here.

umbrellas in cuba

Festival of Fire / Festival del Caribe – Santiago de Cuba

The reason I caught a bus for 16 hours immediately upon arriving in Cuba was to ensure I was in Santiago de Cuba for the Festival of Fire / Festival del Caribe.    I (and other travelers I met) had been anticipating lots of activities, colour and music – but not quite.  I finally found a program in the Infotur office (tourist information office) and it seemed as if it was predominantly lots of talks.  Hmmm…

Although it meant staying in Santiago de Cuba (my least favourite place in Cuba) 4 days – at least I caught the opening parade.

Festival del Caribe - Santiago de Cuba

It started at 4pm when the temperature was about 36 degrees and the humidity about 90%, and Santiago de Cuba is not renowned for its shady boulevards!   Basically it was a procession of people from different Caribbean and Latin countries, many of who were dressed up in some form of traditional clothing, some of who where accompanied by music.  I felt incredibly sorry for this guy (and a couple of others who were done up similarly) – they moved incredibly slowly and I have no idea how their paint didn’t just drip off them in the climate!

Festival del Caribe - Santiago de Cuba

There was quite a crowd turn out despite the temperature and we followed the parade down from Plaza Martí to Parque Cespedes – the central plaza in Santiago de Cuba.

Festival del Caribe - Santiago de Cuba

At this point there was a massive pause in the procession as a band seemed to play for an hour for the VIPs who were seated in the shade.    It was great to hear for about the first 5 minutes, but then it was exactly the same percussion repeated for an hour … Wendy and I decided to seek shade and sat down in a doorway to wait for something more interesting to happen.   Turns out there was a lot of activity going in and out of that particular doorway, and after about 15 minutes when the door was opened for about the 10th time, the guy who opened the door invited us in and up to his apartment with a balcony overlooking the park to watch the parade.  Ah – now all the activity made sense!     We joined him and his friends for about ½ hour and finally the parade started moving again.   He was super chatty and explained some of what was going to me and it certainly as we watched from this very cool vantage point!

Festival del Caribe - Santiago de Cuba

We eventually headed down to street level again as the sun started to set – it was great to see all the locals out enjoying as well

Festival del Caribe - Santiago de Cuba

We left before the parade finished (it would have finished well after sunset at the rate they were going and Cuban streets are not very well lit – so we wouldn’t have seen much at the end) and headed to a restaurant called Compay Gallo – best restaurant we ate at in Santiago de Cuba – awesome meal for only 5.50 CUC.

Compay Gallo

 

Tocororo – The Cuban National Bird

It’s been a while since I’ve posted some bird photos 🙂

Got to see the Cuban national bird – a Trojan called the Tocororo – a few times during my trip.  Another gorgeous bird whose colours are reflected in the colours of the Cuban flag.

Tocororo – The Cuban National Bird

Tocororo – The Cuban National Bird

Getting around in Cuba

There are no chicken buses in Cuba.   There are many forms of transportation, but not a single chicken bus – I guess the United States embargoed the sale of their old school buses along with everything else.

That being said, foreigners are very limited in which long-distance public transport they can actually take – and several (admittedly uncomfortable) forms are reserved exclusively for Cubans.

cuban transport

If you are on a package tour (which many visitors seem to be), you get ferried around in exclusive air-conditioned coaches by Transtur or Transgaviota.  However, for those of us travelling independently, there are essentially 2 options.

Option 1 – ViAzul Coach

There are at least 2 long distance coach companies, but it is almost impossible for foreigners to take the Omnibus Nacionales.  They simply refuse to sell you a ticket.

cuban transport

Instead, you have to take the ViAzul coaches (much more expensive and incredibly expensive compared with a chicken bus), which are reasonably modern, air-conditioned and made in China.

cuban transport - viazul

The slogan for ViAzul is:

Punctual – if the trip starts from where you are getting on, then yes, they are punctual in starting out.  But as the journey goes on, the timing slips further and further and further behind as the bus driver stops to pick up other unscheduled passengers, stops to do his grocery shopping, stops for who knows what other reason.  The worst case of this was from Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba – a 5-hour bus trip that took us 6 because of all the unscheduled stoppages.

Comfortable – yes, the seats aren’t bad, but the air-con is turned up so high it is ridiculously cold, especially given the moment you step out the door it is at least 36 degrees and 90% humid.   I had long pants, socks, shoes, t-shirt, hoodie (with hood pulled up) and windstopper jacket on during the 16-hour trip from La Habana to Santiago de Cuba and my feet were ice blocks when I stepped out into the heat of the day.

cuban transport

In addition, although most of the buses have toilets on board, I have yet to be on one where it works.   At least, unlike chicken buses in Central America, they do stop for toilet breaks every 2-3 hours, but make sure you have some Moneda Nacional for the bathroom!

Safe – have to admit, they are pretty good about overtaking and driving responsibly.   Despite the fact that there are many very, very slow frustrations on the road including horse-and-cart, ox-and-cart, people-on-bicycles, people-on-low-cc-motorcycles, cars-that-barely-go, etc (see first image in post).

They are also pretty good with the luggage – insisting on luggage tags (most of the time) and checking off against the luggage tags when you arrive at your destination.   Infinitely nicer than having to lug your bag onto a chicken bus and keep an eye on it the whole trip, but really don’t appreciate the extra 1 CUC “tip” they ask of all foreigners (not locals) for actually putting the bag on the bus.

Another useful tip if you are going to use ViAzul (learned through much confusion and bafflement) –  book your ViAzul ticket more than 1 day in advance so that you get a piece of paper that looks like this:

cuban transport

This you swap during check-in for a piece of paper that looks like a boarding pass (though generally seating numbers mean nothing).

cuban transport

If you book the day before they put you on a “list” – which is essentially a waiting list.   If you are on the list but don’t have the piece of paper – they will check everyone with a piece of paper in first and only if there are seats remaining sell you a ticket.  They never explain this to you though – very, very important if you are doing long trips (e.g. La Habana to Santiago de Cuba).

Oh, and if you organize your Casa Particular in advance – they usually send someone with your name on a piece of paper to pick you up at the bus station.  It’s generally a little more expensive than just grabbing a “taxi” when you arrive, but it is easy and they absolutely know where the casa is.

cuban transport

Option 2 – Collectivo Taxi

In the western, more touristy part of Cuba at least, there is another option of taking a Collectivo Taxi from one place to the next.  As the name suggests, this is a taxi that takes several passengers (who are not necessarily travelling together) along a certain route.    I did this twice – from Trinidad to Viñales and from Viñales to La Habana.  It is slightly more expensive than ViAzul (usually 2-3 CUC) but the advantage is that you don’t have all the intermediate stops that the bus has to make and the taxi picks you up and drops you off at your Casa Particular.   This is really important in La Habana where the ViAzul terminal is out in woop woop and it would cost at least another 10 CUC on top of the bus fare to get to where you were staying.

My experiences with Collectivo Taxis were 2/3 good.  2/3 were in oldsmobiles and went relatively smoothly.  1/3 was in a clapped out Peugeot and a total a disaster – I’ll write more about that another time.

cuban transport - collectivo taxi

Had an interesting revelation during my long trips here in Cuba.   For 5 months in Central America on the chicken buses, I never once put my earphones in to listen to music.  Never felt the desire.  But within ½ hour of being on a ViAzul bus – my earphones were in and I spent the entire trip connected to music.   My thinking is that in a chicken bus, you have to live in the moment and you can’t escape from being part of your surroundings, no matter how uncomfortable you might be.  Therefore, music just doesn’t fit.   However, in ViAzul, you are in a hermetically sealed capsule with no connection to your surroundings, so music works well to keep you entertained.  I’m sure not all travelers feel this way, but that seems to be how it works for me at least.  Even in the Collectivo Taxis here in Cuba where there was no air-con and the windows were down – I never even thought to put my music on.

 

Cuban Junk Food

If you want to stop emotional eating – Cuba is the place for you!    There are no packets of chips; there is no chocolate (well, except locally made chocolate in Baracoa); you have to look hard for icecream, and when you do find it you have to be prepared to eat 450mL; it is rare to find anything other than Cuban soft drink, none of which is diet (if you do find Coke, it is twice the price and no Coke Zero).

cuban junk food

Instead, what is on offer (if you know where to look – not easy) are home-made snacks that turned out to be very interesting!

Cucurucho (Baracoa) – coconut + honey + fruit (dependent on the season) wrapped in a cone made from the leaves of the Royal Palm.

cuban junk food

Chocococo (Baracoa) – kind of like coconut ice where the top is just coconut and the bottom is coconut + cacao instead of pink food colouring (sorry, didn’t get a picture and couldn’t find one to buy once I’d thought of it).

Chocolate (Baracoa) – handmade dark chocolate.  My favourite was sweetened with honey (rather than sugar) and included a little cinnamon.

cuban junk food - chocolateChurros (Bayamo) – essentially long donuts – the same as churros in Australia.  This cone of churros with condensed milk and powered sugar cost 20 cents.  You could also get filled churros (which I had in Viñales) – filling options were condensed milk or what tasted like condensed milk mixed with powered chocolate.

cuban junk food - churros

Maní (Camagüey) – bar made with peanuts and honey.

cuban junk food - mani

Roscas (Viñales) – the fried ones are like a donut, the baked ones (pictured here) are kind of dry and papery and covered in a very thin coating of chocolate.

cuban junk food - roscas

I’m sure I missed others – after all, it was quite tough to find even these!  I reckon there is a market in Cuba for foodie tours…

Accommodation in Cuba

In Cuba, the most common form of accommodation is to stay with a Cuban family in what is called a Casa Particular.   These are identified by what looks like a blue anchor sign – and they really are absolutely everywhere.

accommodation cuba casa particular

Basically, Cuban families make spare rooms available for tourists in their homes and they earn money via the room (usually 20-25 CUC) and by offering breakfast, dinner and sometimes lunch as well for an extra cost.  I was a little nervous about this before coming to Cuba, but I had a really amazing first experience which set me up really well with the idea of it.

I’d booked Casa Colonial Nivia in Santiago de Cuba several weeks early based on recommendations online and it really didn’t disappoint!  I had a gorgeous, enormous room with a private bathroom for 25CUC.  Lots of light, airconditioning, walking distance to the centre of Santiago de Cuba – really quite amazing!   And Beatrice (who is the main person in the family looking after guests) was so sweet!

accommodation cuba casa particular

I’d asked the Casa to prepare breakfast for me when I arrived which turned out to be a very good option indeed!  It was really tasty and absolutely enormous – tea, coffee, eggs, fresh fruit, bread, jam, cheese, ham all for 4 CUC!

accommodation cuba casa particular

Each day I was there, I ended up packaging up the bread and cheese to have sandwiches for lunch, and froze whatever fresh fruit I didn’t eat for a cool afternoon snack (yes, my room had a proper refrigerator with freezer in it as well)!   Actually, I did that in almost all the Casas -the meals they serve are enormous!

My favourite Casa Particulares were:

Santiago de Cuba:   Casa Colonia Nivia (gorgeous romos – see above)

Baracoa:  La Terraza de Rafael y Adis (hot chocolate included in the breakfast which is served on the rooftop terrace)

accommodation cuba casa particular

Bayamo:  Bretones (amazing dinner for 8 CUC that would have fed 4 people and a really interesting owner who is super-keen to chat)

accommodation cuba casa particular

Viñales: La Cabaña Azul (fabulous breakfast and Piña y Yamilé are super-keen to interact and chat – Spanish only)

casa particular

The casa in Trinidad was fine but the casa in Camaguey didn’t have much light in the room and the owner very brusque.  The Casa in La Habana had the most amazing view and sea-breezes (thank goodness) but I’d grown accustomed to air-conditioning and private bathroom J  All the owners though were very helpful with booking the next place in my schedule.

casa particular la habana

So it’s an interesting experience I have to say and one that I got used to very quickly and appreciated.  Just so glad I started with a great experience in Santiago de Cuba though 🙂

Santiago de Cuba

It’s a bloody long way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba!   One doesn’t generally think of Cuba being a big island, but it is actually over 1200km long and anyone who has bused it from one side to the other will testify that takes some time to traverse!

I decided to fly into Havana and catch the night bus to Santiago de Cuba (well actually, I was going to fly but then procrastinated so long all the flights had sold out) so I would arrive in time for the what I presumed would be the start of the Festival del Caribe or Festival of Fire (it seems to have 2 names).  Presumed, because information on the internet was scarce and I wasn’t able to find a program online at all.   I knew it was going to be a tough trip, but I didn’t quite count on only getting about 4 hours sleep in the 24 hours leading up to it.

Arrived to the humid heat of Havana (I really didn’t miss the heat in Antigua and this was even worse than I’d experienced in Central America!), spent 4 hours waiting in the bus station for departure and then 16 hours on a bus [a proper air-conditioned coach (no chicken buses in Cuba – I guess the US wouldn’t sell them to them) and I’ll write a whole other blog post on my bus experiences] with a broken toilet.   Fortunately, we did stop relatively regularly (unlike in Central America), but unfortunately I didn’t have any small change for the toilet people.  I pulled out my smallest note each time (equivalent of $1), they looked at me as if I were crazy asking them for change and always begrudgingly waved me through (the toilet was about 4 cents).

We stopped for dinner about 4 hours into the trip and for the life of me I couldn’t find anything that looked anything like a meal.  Ended up eating ½ litre of icecream instead, and I wasn’t the only one!  It was actually pretty good!

ViaAzul

Back on the bus we were treated to a subtitled Jean Claude Van Damme movie (no idea how anybody further than 4 rows back in the bus could have seen the subtitles) and a dubbed Mark Wahlberg movie, then, mercifully, they turned off the TV in the bus and let us sleep (there were actually 4 more Van Damme movies in the playlist!).

Van Damme

It was a good thing I’d read on the internet before travelling how cold the buses were – I had my hoodie and my windstopper fleece jacket, long pants, socks, shoes and I was *still* cold!   My feet were ice when I emerged at Santiago de Cuba having slept to some degree on the bus (was so tired) and there waiting for me was a taxi driver with my name of a card.

The Casa I stayed in (Casa Colonial Nivia) was incredible, but Santiago itself – well, let’s just say it is not the best introduction to Cuba!   I was truly staggered by the amount of hassling I got from Cuban men offering me a taxi every 2 seconds, asking me where I was from every other second, and even offering me Cuban men every now and then!   Seriously, a single woman traveler (or even 2 women travelers walking around together) cannot walk 1 block within the main centre of Santiago without being harassed (I spoke to several other women who’d had the same experience).  It really does wear you down very quickly and – if it your first experience of the Cuban people – makes you a little wary as well.

In addition, Santiago is full of fume-belching desperately-in-need-of-a-tuneup low-cc motorcycles which are ridden far too fast for the narrow streets and are absolutely everywhere.  Let’s just say Santiago is not a pedestrian paradise!

Eventually I located a program for the festival only to find out that the opening parade wasn’t to be held until Tuesday afternoon (it was Saturday).  And the vast majority of the program was actually just talks – definitely not what I had in mind when I pictured a Festival!   Fortunately, met a Belgian woman – Wendy – on the Sunday and we ended up hanging out together for the next few days.

Including on a hugely overpriced trip to La Gran Piedra – one of the main attractions in the area.  There were the two of us + guide + very large driver in a very small car heading up a very bad road.   The “coffee tour” consisted of us stopping by the side of the road and the guide pointing out some coffee trees.  Given all my coffee tours in Central America, I was able to add more than what the guide did around the process of growing and producing coffee.

Then we stopped at a coffee stall where they showed us (kind of) the process for making genuine Cuban coffee.  However, the coffee wasn’t included in the price of the trip so that was extra thank you very much.   I declined given I don’t particularly like coffee anyway (though am working on it).

gran piedra coffee

Then we went to an old French coffee farm that has been restored.   It was pretty, but there wasn’t really that much there – the most disturbing thing being a hole in the concrete floor of the house where they laid a pregnant woman down to beat her for running away (pregnant belly down the hole), and the most impressive thing was the enormous coffee grinder that was powered by slaves.   Sorry, no pictures, it was another 5CUC if you wanted to do that, I actually took this picture before I knew about that rule.

Finca Isabella

From there we climbed La Gran Piedra – the Big Rock – which is (as the name suggests) a big, 63,000 tonne volcanic rock.   452 steps to the top and, had it been a clear day, it would have been a really nice view of the area.  As it turned out, we did it on the one day where it wasn’t clear.  There was even a lady with an artesania stall at the top!

artesania gran piedra

Last stop was at the Botanic Gardens, where a lady wandered around with us naming flowers – many of which we’d seen in our own countries.  The coolest part of this place was that it was built on another old French Coffee Finca and they used the stone ruins to assist in organizing the beds.

botanic gardens santiago de cuba

The nice thing about the trip was that it introduced Wendy and I to each other and got us out of Santiago for the day and into the fresh air.  I wouldn’t recommend it though for the price they charged!

First experience in Cuba

Arrived in Cuba and decided to get out of my confort zone by asking some other passengers whether they wanted to share a taxi into Havana (it’s US$25).   I struck lucky on the second try and the added bonus was that the taxi we got was one of the old 1950s ones (those ones are even more expensive).

The reason is that the guy myself and another girl shared with had organized to get picked up in one 🙂

oldsmobile cuba

Internet in Cuba

In addition to a myriad of confusing information on the internet about money in Cuba, there was an equal amount of conflicting information about the internet itself in Cuba.   Talking with a few folk here, this has changed very quickly in the past year, but here’s the current state of play as at July 2016:

  • All of the main towns at least have internet in their key public squares/parks. You can usually figure out where there is internet by the large number of people sitting/standing around staring at their phones.

Internet in Cuba - where to find it

  • The internet is actually quite fast (if you are using a laptop) – faster than what I can get in my home in Melbourne, Australia!
  • To use the internet, you have to buy an internet card – usually from an ETECSA centre (though some hotels and other places also have them). You might need to try a few places to find a place with some to sell.  You can buy cards of 30 minutes (1 CUC, ~USD$1), 1 hour (2 CUC) and 5 hours (10 CUC) – and no, there are no discounts for bulk buying.  You may or may not need to show your passport to buy – some want to see it, some don’t care.

Internet in Cuba - cards

  • I’ve found that most sites work – Gmail, Facebook, TripAdvisor, Airbnb, etc. The only thing I haven’t got to work has been Skype, even though I VPN’d into Australia and the status identifiers seemed to work when I did this.

I have to say, it’s been a really interesting experience going back to pay-by-the-hour internet.  I’ve travelled back 20 years and have been preparing emails, blog posts, etc offline in a Word document, ready to cut and paste into Gmail and my blog when I’m connected.   It also helps to quickly wean you off social media!

For us, 2CUC/hour isn’t really all that expensive, but keep in mind that most Cubans (who don’t deal in services for tourists) only earn 40CUC/month.  So it is still hideously expensive here for the locals, though I’m sure that will change quickly in the coming years.