Our first experience of Cuba was fantastic. We were picked up in a very well looked after Red Chevrolet Dodge with red leather diamond cushioned seats, cream leather interiors, spacious seating and open windows for air conditioning against the balmy night. It was a bouncy ride with no power steering but the engine purred the whole way (I am no expert on cars but I could tell this was a nice car)!
Our second experience of Cuba was not so fantastic. We were dropped off at the casa we were to be staying at.
In Cuba, casas are like a bed and breakfast. The family lives in the same place and often only has one or two rooms that they rent out to earn a little money – obviously this is all overseen by the government and each casa has to log every guest that stays there.
Back to the story, we walked the narrow four flights of stairs to be greeted by someone who was expecting other people in our group but not us. It was nearly midnight and after a day of travel we were not overly enthused to hear the driver had left and the place we were meant to be staying at was at the other side of town. After thirty minutes of numerous phone calls, our kind host organised for us to stay with him and sorted everything out. This is Cuba. Crap happens but it all gets worked out because everyone is just so nice and willing to help.
The following day we moved to our starting casa and spent the day walking around Havana. We both absolutely loved it. The colourful buildings, the colourful people and colourful vibe the city gives off. There is plenty of history (albeit being very biased) and it was great discovering old crumbling buildings, beautiful plazas and drinking mojitos whilst people watching. The maritime museum (Castillo de la Real Fuerza) had interesting documents that showed how Havana defended itself from incoming attacks and protected the city. The Revolucion Museum had many school like exhibits on the revolution and the key players involved, obviously with a big focus on Che Geuvera and Fidel Castro. We also visited the Havana Club Rum Museum to find out how the iconic rum was made, the history behind the brand… and of course, taste some rum!
It turns out we should be tour guide planners as the following day we took a guided city tour organised by our tour group leader that followed exactly the same path we had taken the day before. We did find out a few more interesting pieces of information; the main religion is catholic with an offshoot called Santería and rationing is still the main source of most people’s food (each person gets roughly five eggs per week and children up to the age of 7 get a litre of milk a day).
Then we hopped on the bus and made our way west to Viñales. After arriving in the late afternoon we had dinner at an eco restaurant called Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso. We walked around the grounds looking at all the growing vegetables and flowers. They also had goats, pigs and rabbits although they made it very clear we were not going to eat the rabbits and that they were only used for compost! We had a feast of food with the highlights for me being a curry soup and tomato cabbage. The view from our table was amazing looking out into the valley with mogotes (big rounded stone like mounds) poking out of the ground.
We spent our first full day in Viñales doing a guided walk around the town and surrounding area. Our first stop was a short walk to a tobacco farm. A lovely gentlemen talked to us about the process of growing tobacco and making cigars. When the leaves are put in the store house (a wooden barn) they are hung to dry until ready for rolling. 90% of the leaves go to the government and 10% is kept by the family to smoke themselves and to sell. When the family makes their cigars they remove the vein from the leaves with contains 70% of the nicotine. The cigars made by companies, including big brand names such as Cohiba and Partagas include the nicotine still by chopping it up and rolling it in between the leaves. Three leaves are used by the family to roll the cigar and then a final special leaf that has been selected for it’s pristine looks is used to roll and encase the bulk of the cigar. An addition by the locals is to add a squeeze of honey to the end that you smoke; a welcome addition especially if you don’t like the natural taste so much!
Our next stop on the walk was to a coffee, rum and honey farm. They showed us how they made the coffee from plant to cup and then we got to try some of their guayabita rum. It is made from tiny, dwarf guava fruit plus sugar cane and a little honey which tastes just like a sweet rum. We also got to try some of their earth honey from bees nest that are so hard to find, only some of the locals know where and how to get the honey. The honey is super sweet and quite runny – in my opinion the best honey I’ve ever tasted and better than Manuka!
We finished off the trip with a long walk back to the city admiring the beautiful flora and fauna.
The following day was a travel day from Cienfuegos to Trinidad via the Bay of Pigs. We had a brief stop off at a “beach” aka some rocks by the sea with some swimming bars entering into the water and a “pool” aka dirty sinkhole that people throw their rubbish into. We arrived in Trinidad and had a lovely evening city walk. Before dinner we had a mojito in the plaza where they professed to having “the best mojitos in the world”… they were ok. For dinner we had old clothes! Well, that is the translation of a traditional Cuban dish called Ropa Vieja – shredded beef in tomato and spices.
Trinidad is beautiful with so many brightly coloured buildings and lively streets. We spent the morning walking through lush green forest, Parque el Cubano, just a short drive from the city, filled with the most beautiful birds, lizards and bugs to a lovely waterfall. We stopped at a little hut to try some lemongrass tea before reaching the waterfall. Once we finally got there it was somewhat touristy with lots of people but it was a welcome relief from the heat and Stephen took a big jump in from a cliff! We had a faster walk back for a little bit of exercise!
Then we made our way to the beach for a relaxing afternoon. The beach was pretty average and the sand was quite rough however the sea was a nice blue (albeit a little dirty). Stephen took a quick snorkel and found some amazing items… old bottles, a few cans, a couple of bags oh and one or two fish!
We had dinner just after sunset on a pretty, compact rooftop terrace and enjoyed a dinner of garlic prawns plus more rice and beans. We also had lots of mojitos and a local drink cancanchara – that was a good finish to the day!
The next day we took the bus back to Havana via Santa Clara the resting place of Che Guevara. We walked around the Che Guevara museum and visited his mausoleum. The museum was very interesting however was very one sided and blamed the CIA for everything. The mausoleum was very cool (temperature) inside as it is like a very well designed stone cave built into a small hill.
Che Guevara is with thirty seven of his comrades all resting horizontally in the wall, each with their face carved into the stone. Che Guevara is in the centre with a light star shining onto his grave. Each grave had a red flower put into the crack at the front.
This is a very sacred place for Cubans and we were not allowed to speak or take photos as a mark of respect. Additionally, there is an eternal flame lit with a garden beyond it which no one was allowed to look at or walk into.
We then made a quick visit to a local school and saw their hospital and local ration store with all the important things – rice, flour… and rum! Welcome to Cuba.