The big island to the South of Florida:
Where do I begin? It has always been on my bucket list to visit so convinced Tom to go this year while our boat was in Isla Mujeras, MX. So we flew from Cancun to Havana along with Vicki Staudte who met us at the airport. We obtained the tickets from a travel agent in Isla.
Arriving at the airport was a trip from the past as our government taxi was a 1957 Chevy – Tom’s dream car. But with all these old cars meant that could be BLACK smoke if they hadn’t replaced the engines yet as there is no emission controls here. They are abit more expensive 30 CUC than hiring a yellow taxi which we did other times. The driver told us they only have 5 classic cars refit with Toyota engine (most refit with diesel) in the gov’t fleet. There are 2 currencies – the tourist currency CUC and the local currency National Pesos (used for govt veges/meat, bread/sweet markets and private small street eateries (palabra’s). 1 CUC (same as $1US) is approximately 25 National Pesos. Gov’t taxi drivers make 13 CUC/day and private make slightly more.
They brought us to the Casa Elizabeth in historica Havana where her 86 yr old mother Conception Elana, husband, 2 – 80 yr old Aunts, 2 adult children, cousin Leonardo and 3 rooms for rent. Most of the older casa particulars (private homes renting rooms) are a narrow, long slice of a 2-3 story side by side building with a balcony or terrace if on the top floor. A room with 2 beds/3 people average $20-30 CUC/US with private bath, fans and A/C. For extra income they provide breakfast $4 CUC or dinner for $7-10 CUC/US per person if you choose. We were told that owners that rent out rooms make the most private income. The gov’t does tax them like any other gov’t restaurant run by an owner.
We did a lot of sight seeing, walking, night music groups, dancing and people watching. They appear to accept gays but not sure if they allow marriage. Throughout our trip we gave away soap, toothbrush/paste, paper/pens, soap bubble toy, etc. Pam/Dennis on S/V Glyde met us our first day there so was fun to explore with them. During our guided tour bus trip, we got off to find the local gov’t Coppelia where all they sell is various forms of ice cream. If you have National Pesos, you stand in line for a vacated seat to buy ice cream at local vs tourist prices (CUC). Its amazing to watch locals with 2-3 bowels each having 5 scoops of ice cream, some with cake, coconut, etc. They average 5 Nat’l Pesos per bowel. It was quite an experience! As we traveled throughout the country, we found more but they did not always have ice cream to sell.
We were told that a gov’t employee never receives enough money to live even with the food provided by the gov’t (1 chicken/mo., daily bread/rice/coffee/eggs/etc.) But they all appear happy with very few homeless as the gov’t rents out all the homes and fincas (farms). Now realize that most of these places were taken from the families after the revolution. An average finca is 7-16 hectors. The families grow most of what they need to eat but for income they sell to the gov’t tobacco, yuca or other root veggies, pineapple, banana, beef, etc. They do grow a lot of tobacco for cigars. The planting season starts in September and ends in March and usually grows in the hilly areas. I learned that the plant has 5 different leaf sections with different qualities/use within the cigar. The entire family gets involved in the growing, drying and rolling of cigars by hand. Most farmers don’t have tractors so use oxen for all the field work which brings me back to my farming childhood watching my dad/brothers using work horses. The gov’t takes 90% of the earnings. I believe they average 3000 cigars or 80-100 CUC is their net. We learned the names of cigars were Cohiba, monte cristo, etc. We were told that Raul is possibly going to make a change such that the families start renting the farms and they keep the proceeds. We also understand that 2 months ago travel to other countries was opened up but most can’t afford the airline costs.
We went to the Viazul (higher end bus) bus terminal to head to Vinales. Some of the other local buses that take you to smaller towns are old military trucks with a narrow slat for ventilation and crowded with standing room only. We were approached by private taxi’s that would drive the 3 of us there for the same price. So after inspecting the car we choose to take it as it would get us there faster. We spent about 3-5 days in each town we stopped at. We had found the Havana casa on the internet and the Vinales Casa in the Lonely Planet while in MX but most casa owners will have friends/relatives in various towns to call to make a reservation for you. We hiked for sunrise views by visiting the few indigenous Los Aquaticos who healed with water, road horse thru Valle Anacon/Vincente for sunset views, biked to various valleys in this farming area with beautiful vistas. The casa owners father had a organic farm we hiked to which was amazing how he had so many types of crops. He was self taught and obtained organic certifications. Adrian was the 27 yr old guide for the sunrise hike. He spoke good English so we had a good discussion about the political system. Nothing solved but to continue to have HOPE. We heard and saw the national bird, Tocaroro displaying red/blue/white. They have the royal palm all over but minimal animals.
We went next to Playa Giron to do some diving $25/dive. I dove 2 dives and wasn’t that impressed with fish life but coral was in good shape. I think the best diving is on the outer islands Key Largo/Juventudes, etc. We immediately saw ALOT of SMELLY dead land crabs on the coastal road. We were told that they come in herds from the hills to feast in preparation to return to the hills to have sex and then return again to the playa to lay their eggs. Then parent/babies return to the hills again. During this 1.5 month process lots get squished.
Cuban’s can’t get internet in their homes. So they pay to have other foreigners order the service for the casa’s home telephone number. Its abit slow and unreliable but its better than nothing. They will get their service taken away if they skype or go to other forbidden sights.
The military won’t take gays for the mandatory 2 year service for men. Some women enlist in the 1 year of service so they can get free college without having to pass their version of the SAT test. Like in Guatemala we didn’t see any advertising billboards unless it was political propaganda.
Cienfuego was our next destination via Viazul bus. This is where a lot of cruisers stop in the Marlin Marina to do some land travel. As in most towns, the modes of taxi transportation change. Here the horse carts started to carry 6-9 people so we felt sorry for the horses as they were pretty skinny. So far you will see auto taxi’s, 2 seater bicycle taxi’s with radio’s and lights run by batteries, tuk tuk, side car motorcycles, etc. It was very hot and rainy while here so decided to leave for Trinidad.
En route via private taxi to Trinidad, we stopped to purchase some mangos on the coast. Our casa Smith was nice but under construction so after a couple nights we found another Casa Louis Colonial with a great terrace for dinner, vistas and watch the morning come to life. We rented bikes to see the playa/coast but my bike was bad with gear/brakes sticking so very difficult and was hot. A horse cart stopped to pick me up as I was walking with bike up a steep hill. We also took a morning hike to radio tower. Artist Jonny was hanging out at the church ruins and decided to come with. The gov’t was allowing this French business to build a hotel which incorporated this historic church. They would own and reep profits for 10 years before the gov’t would take it under their control. We were in Valle Ingenos/Cerro de la Vigia where Che Guevera and his revolutionary troops hung out. This used to be a large coffee plantation area with one of the homes turned into the psychiatric home for those challenged. We walked around the cobble stoned streets (similar to Antigua, Guatemala) and saw lots of music groups day/night with dancers enjoying themselves. This is a beautiful village with lots to do. We also obtained internet at the Gov’t Ekteles communications business at 3CUC for 30 minutes but it could take up to 5-7 minutes to get logged on and slow at times. Another change was the bug bomb smoke trucks that would travel thru the city around dusk. It was like a mist of fog appeared and you couldn’t see anything. We were abit concerned with health affects as well. They did this in Santiago de Cuba as well but didn’t notice that in Havana.
We also met up with Amanda and Mark on S/V Belvenie to spend a couple days. We would just miss each other in Vinales and Cienfuegos. It was fun to chat about our experiences and listen to music together.
We went to go see the train that takes passengers/locals thru Valle de Los Ingenios to various villages and other passenger trains. The man we spoke to had worked here for 43 years and husband Tom for 36 yrs. He showed us US built locomotion trains from 1914, 1919, 1927 that still worked. We decided to ride the train but didn’t realize that it would take us all day to get back. When they were tying our car on a curve Tom knew this was going to be a problem so saved the engineer by running back to turn the hand brake on our car. You could see the grins on their faces as they tried to chat Spanish to English about the railroad. I got abit bored on this train tour as hadn’t planned on doing this and realized that I felt abit Cuban in not being able to do anything about it so should accept the situation.
The 12 hour Viazul bus ride to Santiago de Cuba was long but interesting landscapes we passed with dairy cows, black soil, lots of crops, then coast and mountains – a pretty trip. We changed casa’s here as the original rooms needed the hallway light on all night as the switch was in a odd unreachable spot and our room had windows to the hallway so lots of light all night long. So we were walking and met Milan a man that spoke good English and worked at the Punta Gorda marina. He suggested another Casa El Mirador. The casa was great with 2 separate bedrooms on the terrace floor. Sort of an odd setup with the bathroom but the views were great of the harbor, etc. It amazed me with how there was such a concentration of rooftops and buildings. You could barely tell where one ended and another started. Milan also introduced us to Robert who worked at the Gov’t bodega of the old Barcardi Rum factory where they also sold cigars. He acquired some of the goods to sell for profit and showed us what he had.
Music groups and artists are great here. We went to the Casa de Las Tradiciones mid afternoon to listen to the groups practice for their night gigs that you would pay $2 CUC to get in. We enjoyed their CD’s. On our way back to Museo de la Lucha Clandistina we met Dr. Fernando who used to be head of the Nuclear Medicine and Research Center since 1991. He went to school in Cuba, Russia and Ottawa, Canada where he got his PhD. Around 1996 he was put into prison for “telling the truth” to some high political person who asked him “why the research center hadn’t come up with a cure for Leukemia”? He told them that part of the reason is the research supplies that were intended for his cancer center are ending up in your hospital. In 2 days he was in prison for 14 months and he was prohibited from working any further. Each year they grant him the visa/permission to leave the country but he doesn’t want to leave until his son graduates with his medical degree. Fernando’s wife divorced him and after a hurricane Sandy destroyed the gov’t shambled home he was squatting at – he started living with an elderly women and basically gets a few sheckles as a historical guide outside of the museum. Fernando came to our casa for further discussion and to dictate a letter to a colleague in Canada. Fernando just had eye surgery so couldn’t see very well.
Milan also found us Eddy, a private taxi to take us to climb La Gran Piedre, Sierra Maestra Mountain range and visit Castillo de San Pedro del Morro fort. He was a funny young man with a small car. He would always say “no problem”. He became our taxi as well between bus and airport terminals. We also obtained info on where I could buy a local bead with silver country map imbedded in it. Pam had one and I was happy to find the artist.
We then went to the small village of Baracoa via Viazul bus which was the most mountainous trip to the Pacific side. It is a very rural farming area. We stayed at casa Yamile y Ramon who was a funny man that eat all his meals with us on the terrace. He would say “I’m sorry for you”. He wants to visit the Washington DC mason center. We took a taxi to hike at the UNESCO Parque Hombolt with a guide. Interesting to learn that each village has a political and military head person to control all the functions with a term of 3-5 years. I was told that there is minimal crime other than theft of killing gov’t cattle which is a longer term than killing a person (10 yrs.). I loved to watch the children play on their home made carts sometimes using their feet as brakes going down hill. You would often see men playing domino’s late afternoon and I always wondered what the women were doing…. We ate 2 new local foods there – cucurucho, a sweet coconut, fruit, honey paste wrapped in a banana leaf and a Bacani, a palm wrapped plantain with coco/crab in the center (similar to a tamale).
The locals are very friendly. Tom contracted a stomach bug upon getting back to Santiago. I quickly went to the market that was just closed. There were a few guys still there and I told them my situation that I wanted to get a papaya and lime for my sick husband as heard that is good for stomach besides banana and rice. They brought me in back and sold me what I needed even though they were on their way home. I decided to put Tom on the amoeba/parasite meds I had from Guatemala and he started to improve. That evening Vicki/I went for a walk towards the Casa de la Traditionals and ran into Fernando. We explained Tom’s symptoms. He immediately wanted to see Tom. So he determined he wanted to go to get some meds but needed to see his doctor friend for the prescription to go to the gov’t pharmacy. I tagged along to see where he was going plus his eyesight is bad.
The following morning we had a flight to Havana. Tom was feeling better. When we arrived back to Casa Elizabeth she had some jelly called Sabia that is supposed to help with stomach cramps. Tom slept most of the day while Vicki/I explored the city some more and went to the artisan market. Most of the museums and Gran Teatro were under renovation since we left the first time so we couldn’t go to a theatre production.
It was a GREAT 3 week trip with lots of fun experiences. Now the journey continues with getting ready to sail Sojourn the 350nm from Isla Mujeras, MX to Florida with Vicki’s assistance. Sojourn hasn’t been back to USA in 7 years! Its been a WONDERFUL journey.
Live your dreams
Rose & Tom