South America Post 4 Cienfuegos, Trinidad and time to leave!

Our night was spent in Cienfuegos, a city in south central Cuba, founded by Fench families in the 18th Century. It has a beautiful waterfront, and on arrival we were taken on a slightly bumpy ‘bicycle made for 2’ taxi ride around the city.

The buildings in the centre are architecturally very different to the Spanish style in Havana, and although the city has many rather tired buildings, they are working hard here to attempt to restore the centre.

Many of the most stylish buildings are now Hotels or Clubs, which only tourists, or wealthy Cubans can afford. And that is the paradox here. It is a communist country, but we could see that there are some people making a lot of money here, while some of their countrymen are very very poor. Equal shares for all? I don’t think so.

We constantly observed shortages. In one town, there was no fuel, in another, no bread, in another no cooking oil.

We went into a supermarket in Cienfuegos. There were just 4 aisles. One aisle had just toilet paper. Another, rows and rows of tinned tomatoes, ketchup and a basic tomato sauce, plus some packets of beans. Another row was cereal and water. Another was locally made colas and pickles.

There was some very expensive meat in a freezer.. and a good selection of alcohol, which was surprisingly cheap. Suddenly we realise how we take the vast array of choice in our shops for granted. Speaking to some local people on the waterfront, they told us they buy most of their meat, cheese etc on the black market as it is cheaper and better.

Our accommodation, Casa Oriente, was lovely. The family made us so welcome and cooked us a gorgeous dinner of prawns with coconut.

The next day, after exploring the city with Tony, we headed for the hills! We had brought colouring pencils, shampoos and toothpastes from home which we gave out in the poorer mountain villages. People seemed so grateful it was embarrassing. We wished we had brought more. These things can be obtained here, but are expensive and poor quality, so people don’t. Toothpaste is £8 a tube, and a cheap toothbrush £6.

Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall, El Nicho, where a local guide led us on a walk explaining all the plants and birds. The air plants covering trees were particularly impressive!

And a weird lizard!

Then on to Trinidad, an old town that was so isolated that the first road to reach it didn’t arrive until 1953. Most of the streets are still cobbled. The architecture is amazing.

All 17th and 18th century. Very colourful, with huge windows that have floor to ceiling, ornate iron screens over them, which keep people out but let the breeze in.

The oldest buildings have wooden screens.

We loved it here, exploring the Cathedral and old family houses. The main square buzzes with music and people, and we joined the crowd, having a Mojito and a Daiquiri!

Wifi is mainly available in public squares like this. You must buy a Government card and use it to log on.

Our accommodation was in Hostal Gisela y Wilfredo. They were so friendly, and cooked us a super lobster dinner which we ate on their roof terrace, with our own salamanders keeping the bugs down!

Next morning, we visited a pottery, and sampled another Cuban rum based drink… La Canchanchara – at 10.30 am! This was necessary to relax our inhibitions enough for a 1 hour salsa lesson. Suffice it to say, thanks to our super teacher, we did well learning the steps, but the required wiggling and shimmying needs a lot of work! We won’t be on Strictly Come Dancing anytime soon!

An afternoon visit to the lovely beach at Playa Ancon was followed by watching the sunset from the roof terrace and a leisurely evening amble.

No supper, we are too full! Dominoes is widely played with a passion!

An early start for our return to Havana, via some old steam trains for Chris to play in

(Health and Safety is an unknown concept here!!), and an old sugar cane plantation village where we tried sugar cane juice. Then Santa Clara, an inland city which was a key victory in the Revolution.

The rebels had been moving westward. Santa Clara was their biggest objective. Che Guevara was leading this rebel group. Battista’s government sent an armoured train containing weapons and engineers to Santa Clara, to move east towards the rebels. Che’s men destroyed the railway line 1km east of the city. As the train moved east towards this point, rebels inside the city lifted the track there with a Caterpillar bulldozer! The train saw the track was gone and reversed back to reach the city, hitting the blockage and derailing. All were captured.Some carriages remain as a museum.

It was a huge victory and Che Guevara has Super hero status. A huge mausoleum and statue overlook the town.

Che was a socialist who grew unhappy with Russian communist influence in Cuba, and in 1965, left to go to fight with rebels in Bolivia, only to be killed there soon after. His body was found in the 1990s and brought to Cuba.

Finally, back to Havana for a night, before our flight tomorrow. Tonight we have an ‘in room gecko’ for mosi control.

A long walk, watching cruise ships arriving and departing. Tourism is the lifeblood of Cuba. It has felt very safe here. They need and love tourists, but if you come, please try and use locally run businesses rather than Government owned or international ones. We spoke to some people at a restaurant who told us that the Army control 70% of the tour companies here. Finally, a last Mojito at the Art Nouveau Hotel Inglaterra, soaking up the sights and sounds of this bustling, musical mixed up country.

Motorways can be empty…but full of potholes.

Our accommodation was always clean, but often with a 1960’s feel! Here is our guide Tony outside our Hostal in Trinidad.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, each one had air con! Everyone was friendly, the food was better than we expected, the buildings were a mix of ornate splendour, simple dwellings, and ghastly, Russian built blocks of flats.

I was tickled by the rows and rows of washing lines we saw, full of vibrant colourful clothes!

It sums up Cuba – vibrant and colourful!

(With our guide Tony, we have been trying to follow the news anxiously due to the Venezuela situation. Tony because the Cuban Government are asking people to sign a paper to say they support Venezuela’s current PM, and could potentially be called upon to fight there. Us as we fly to Ecuador via Colombia which seems to feature centrally in the USA’s aid plans!)

SA Post 2 Havana, Cuba

We arrived in Havana, Cuba in the midst of an apparently unseasonable rain storm of biblical magnitude. Just like everywhere else we have visited in the last few years, the locals told us ‘this shouldn’t be happening at this time of year’. Global warming in action?

Our flight with KLM was excellent. The food was lovely and the lie flat seats very comfy. I even watched 4 films, but highlights were clog cruet sets, and being given miniature Delft pottery houses containing gin! This is a tradition dating back to 1949 and a new design is added each year.

We were met at the airport by Felipe, manager of Wij in Cuba, a small local tour company. His colleague Tony will be driving and guiding us during our stay.

Our bed for 3 nights is in a Casa Particulares in the heart of Old Havana. This is a room in someone’s home.

This one is simply furnished, very clean and with a very blue loo!!

Also ample breakfasts which take care of our 5 a day in one go!!

Arriving late in the evening, we have only glimpsed the city, but can already sense the faded glory, and the passion for music… salsa rhythms resonate from shops, cafes and verandas.

What will we discover tomorrow?

Thursday started overcast, and a cloud burst had affected parts of Cuba. Tony took us on a super walking tour of Havana, gradually introducing us to some history and culture. Yes there are amazing old American cars everywhere. The best ones are pressed into service for tourist trips. More impressive are the 30 and 40 year old Fiats and Ladas, covered in rust but still struggling on.

Sometimes people are shocked in countries like Cuba, because everyone seems to be ‘on the make’. Shortchanging you a few pesos, short measures on the drinks, 5 minutes less on your 30 minute ride. Chatting to local people, we found out that Government employees are paid the equivalent of US$20 per month. People explained that this wasn’t so bad when you got coupons which ensured you got essential foodstuffs, access to Doctors and medicines etc. That has all but gone, but the incredibly low salary remains.

To put this into context, a 20 year old Lada could cost 30,000 US$. Medicines seem really scarce and hugely expensive, even for basics like Aspirin. Some food stuffs are very dear. There are shortages of basic items, and very little choice of brands or quality. Currently soap is in short supply, and it is common to see queues outside shops.

So what might you and I resort to as a way of making those dollars go a little further. A job on the side? A little fiddle here and there? Even professionals like Doctors and Teachers need to supplement their income somehow.

Havana was founded in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, and ruled almost continuously by the Spanish until 1898, apart from short period of British rule in 1764 . Then Britain gave it back to the Spanish, swooping it for Florida!! Then in 1902 Cuba became Independent.

Havana’s architecture is grand. Many buildings were erected during opulent Spanish rule, and photos of Havana’s heyday show it prominent on the World stage, visited by celebrities. Sadly, many of these buildings are falling apart. Many would be condemned in Britain, but faint lights, or some drying clothes show them as still lived in. UNESCO are helping with some restoration, and parts of Havana are returning to their former glory, but it felt as if the luxury hotels and restaurants they now house are mainly benefitting tourists, overseas multinational owners, and some local fat cats, rather than reaching the majority of the population. Having said that, without tourism, Cuba would be lost at present. It is just important to try to direct your tourist spending to local people.

Highlights in Havana are:

The Cathedral, built in 1777:

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The 19th century pharmacies.

The 16th century aqueduct:

The old fort and walls:

The old sea terminal, now used for massive cruise ships:

The wooden pavement, put in so the carriages would make less noise, not disturbing the Spanish Officers during their afternoon siesta!

Beautiful squares with 18th and 19th century Spanish, or Art Nouveau buildings.

This last one shows where the slaves would have slept.

The revolution museum containing the story of the revolution, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis.

Women played a large part in the revolution, some holding quite senior ranks.

Also the story of Che Guevara.

Rather strange to visit another site where vehicles and missiles were on display, partly hidden by palm trees, and it was a chilling reminder of perilous times.

We also drove along the Malecon, the coastal promenade, in a 1951 Chevrolet, with waves breaking over the road. The driver immediately turned off the prom for fear of damage to the car. Not surprising, as we later found out that with an original engine, these cars could be worth 80,000 dollars!

The high waves after the rain shows how vulnerable Cuba is to storms and rising sea levels.

References to Ernest Hemingway are everywhere. He had a house here for many years, and was a great sea fisherman. He wrote ‘The Old man and the Sea’ here. We visited his farm house in Cojimar, which was charming, and saw the bars where he drank his Mojitos and Daiquiris.

Hemingway’s bathroom with scales and his weight written on the wall!

Anne has discovered she quite likes a Mojito if it is not too strong!!

We were led to believe that Cuban food was bland and uninteresting, but so far we have been very pleasantly surprised, having some very nice meals.

Not too many birds around, but we have seen Pelicans, Frigate Birds and Turkey Vultures.

We feel very safe here, and walk happily at night in central Havana, despite limited street lighting and the biggest potholes in both pavement and the road surface that we have ever seen. It is a loud, bustling, musical city, whose vibrancy is infectious.

Tomorrow we leave Havana and head west!