Travelling through Cuba (not limited to backpacking) is so many things - but above all, (and I will surely fail to impress upon you) is its uniqueness.
With a history dominated by controversy involving most notably the USA and Soviet Union, Cuba has not been without violent incidents and struggles. In more recent history these incidents made all the more acute and rightly or wrongly by an individual man called Fidel Castro and certain others outside Cuba - men who have come and gone (Castro remains *), and other less known individuals making up the army and another individual we all know as Che. The revolutionaries that once and for all freed Cuba from Batista. Some think he [Castro] is dead others read that which he has had written from his hospital bed. But this is not a story of the History of Cuba this is a story of Cuba today (may june 2008).
*Summer 2016 it could be that Fidel Castro is dead.
Editors note - Fidel Castro Died November 25, 2016, according to the nation's press.
By Fidel_Castro_-_MATS_Terminal_Washington_1959.png: Warren K. Leffler derivative work: Damiens.rf - Fidel_Castro_-_MATS_Terminal_Washington_1959.png, Public Domain, Link
I travelled alone on this trip and yet I never really did. I met some great comrades of the backpacking kind just a few days in. My itinerary was not fixed. I had hopes of Scuba Diving a lot and didn't. I ended up with the following route; Havana, Maria la Gorda, Vinales, Cayo Levisa, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, Varadero and Havana.
I made a brief tour of El Capitol which looks like the white house (the dome at least) and had a run the next morning which made me late for my bus to Maria La Gorda. It was a truly great run up to Vedado along the Malecon sometimes uncomfortable wearing the iPod and GPS oh well...the red trainers are well travelled. I was jet lagged and so I won't get into Havana yet.
Maria La Gorda - Pinar Del Rio province.
I had first booked (from the U.K.) a package of 6 dives in the western tip of Pinar Del Rio province and the first night in Havana, this was due to me having an old guidebook, not a fancy Cuba backpacking one and me being worried that I needed a hotel before entering Cuba. They do need an address, but they don't check reservations any longer so I could have not done it this way round. As it happened I was really too lagged to appreciate the 7 hours left in the day in Havana, and then I went on to Maria la Gorda and the resort. I went strictly for diving and really unless you have time to kill I wouldn't recommend going there. It is really just a resort with just diving on the menu. The snorkelling isn't organised either but you could jump onto the dive boat and get some good snorkelling in. The point needing to be mentioned is that it's not Cuba and I hadn't seen Cuba yet.
Diving at Maria La Gorda.
The diving was fair in terms of topography for 6 dives, and there didn't seem to be any caves to speak of mostly nice walls and canyons, but lacking in Fish life, and this was the main negative. It is surprising being so far out from the real populace or overfishing that this should be so. The water was nice and the visibility a good 20 feet. The equipment was not up to standard and I was glad of my training. At depth, we had clearly unserviced equipment. Take your own is my advice. Even the divemaster was diving with only a watch, but following by were the divers and me and my computer said no! Beware there are no Decompression Chambers here. The air gauges would need a good tap to show the right value, not at all inspiring, hope that your buddy stays close. Byron was a good diver and divemaster apart from the no-computer scenario. One dive was ruined after realising too late my BCD wouldn't hold air it was more swimming than diving, I should have decided not to dive, but I knew I could manage with my experience and I did need to use my dives up. I wish I could rate the place but it should be seen as an opportunistic spot to dive if staying in Vinales and then stay a night and not do a day trip (as stupidly the bus timetable is set such that you can't do a second dive by a mere 30 minutes), I would not recommend a holiday here specific to dive. And I really am sorry to say this.
The affiliation is ACUC a Canadian one and the dive shop as with everything in fact state owned. All the staff were local, friendly and with good English.
More on diving in Maria La Gorda and scuba diving
Nature and the rest...
It is really hard to explore Maria La Gorda apart from the road and its coast along the very beautiful beach, I got a few runs (jogging) in the searing heat after my diving, but they were not able to be long runs 30 - 40 minute cooking sessions (as a warm weather runner like me you might appreciate). The food is via a restaurant in the hotel or snacks at the bar. The nightlife is what you make of it, if you are there alone it could be mighty quiet. There is just a bar with no entertainment laid on. So it's not like a resort as you would know it. The food was good buffet style with a grill. It was a good start to my trip but not Cuba! Thank god for the amusing Dera, An Irish fella I met who was doing an open water course with them. He had a bit longer trip than me and I was to meet him again in Trinidad in a rave in a cave! We never had a game of chess that was a massive board painted on the ground and pieces the size of a 5-year-old. Just whiled away a few evenings drinking crystal beer and mojitos and starting to forget about life back home. Here is what others make of the resort Maria la Gorda.
Ordinarily, my transfer was to take me back to Havana, and they were not able to change it to go to Vinales so I decided to get off at the city of Pinar Del Rio and get to the highly touted Vinales. A must for the Cuba Backpacking experience! Here is where my real Cuba adventure began, stepping off my transfer bus I had an amazing next 2 hours being tested by people trying to rip me off ordering a taxi and having a coach pull up full of people on the way to Vinales and wanting to charge too much and it also being a coach, not a taxi! I decided to get to the hitching point and go as the locals do- there is a lot of hitchhiking so much so it's pretty organised. That also cost too much but 3rd time was lucky and I haggled hard (and hard you have to), many times in Cuba you will not get the right price, and they will not take you, pride or whatever you call it. Move on if you have more time than money or take it on the chin. My pride and my desire to get some exercise meant I got my pack on my back and started to walk, the first Jiniteros (see below) were very soft by Cuban standards and I got a lift to the hitching point in a car and then they had no change, of course not! Always keep some change.
Jiniteros; These are Cubans who devote their lives to getting money from tourists and drinks and sex from women. They also earn much more than say a doctor if they are good! They will be a constant pest until you get the hang of them, then you can get rid of them with practice and time. A note to the guys - you will be expected to pay for the sex and not just the drinks etc with Jiniteras there is no real prostitutional line that gets drawn on the male side as they don't ask for money for the sex. It is not without obvious risk but many travellers experience no problems I'm sure but just take care and be sensible.
I got a Chevy 1948 to Vinales which was an awesome ride check it out here. I found a 'Casa Particular' that was close by one recommended by a French lad called Jan, it was full so I stayed in another casa in a soviet style bloc, I wasn't sure if this was good at first but the amazing thing was the balcony community it lit up in the gorgeous evening air with a cacophony of chickens soap operas and noisy Cuban banter - a first highlight after the ride in, this is why I am here these experiences. My casa costs 10 CUC per night and I for the first time ate lobster for 12 CUC, it was pretty good, but I doubt I will eat lobster ever again.
The following morning was a green tourist bus tour, only a single bus does a loop and hits each stop with an hour in between, so it's awkward at best but allows one to appreciate a bit why Vinales is special. On the bus, I met John, and he too an Irishman one of many Irish in Cuba was to be found taking a similar path to my own. Vinales is special not for the town or village as it feels, it's the Mogotes, limestone formations left after the erosion of millions of years leaving fertile plains ideal for growing sugar cane or today TOBACCO and sugar cane!
Pinar Del Rio
Pinar Del Rio probably is the best tobacco-growing region in the world. If you have ever had the chance of smoking a top Cuban cigar, chances are the tobacco came from here. At this time of year, the tobacco has been harvested and is drying in the house-like structures layer upon layer, 3 months to grow and 3 months to dry, it is shipped off to the factories, like the Partagas factory in Havana for subsequent making into cigars. This area is gorgeous, check out the photos with this article. It's what makes Vinales a must-do thing on anyone's list. On this tour, I also met Floyd a very knowledgeable guide at the visitor centre just 5 minutes from the jasmine hotel on the green bus tour route. I organised to join- wait for it 2 more Irish guys and a Belgian tour round the immediate area for 10 CUC the following day. I had also arranged for a horse ride that same afternoon of the tour, so that was a full day. This place is one of the most beautiful I know and I shall return, return to the Mogotes, palm trees and fields and fincas (farms). During the horse ride, I saw the tobacco drying and smoked some of the stuff, it really smells so lovely being inside the drying houses. I didn't want to but the farmer wanted me to buy some roughish rolled 'esplendidos' size cigars after plying me with a coconut and some rum...I had to take 10 in the end and wasn't so happy but it worked out in the end. I mean I didn't think at the time I was going to smoke them and I couldn't give them away. But any time I saw Dera (who joined a day later) he had some rum and a cigar and the smoking cigars while out thing kind of stuck. Even today I went to Tescos here in Tooting Bec with a cigar and it was regal! In the sun wishing I were there in the Cuban streets or plazas with rum and some women around to make it interesting. Back to the horse ride and in fact a dip in a lake. Earlier in the day a poor guy came up and didn't ask for money but a pen, I obliged with my freebie from Virgin and he was really happy.
The Trek and Champions League Drama
It was one of the better things I have done since being in Cuba, floyd had great English and my Spanish was making me concentrate the day before so today I could learn and relax about tobacco and the countryside for 3 blissful hours- It was the only occasion I forgot my camera! We passed right through one Mogote and descended the other side. If you have time there are longer more interesting treks and visiting Aquatecos people if you can would be awesome. These are still pretty indigenous and don't live outside their communities. The government stopped Floyd from doing this trek these days. The 2 Irish guys were flying down to Baracoa on the furthest end of the island the following day and this gave ammunition to the cause that was to be if I decided to do Baracoa or not. I took my GPS tracker and Floyd joked about me being CIA with all my gadgets. Also, Floyd invited me to join him for the game and John the Irish guy also wanted to see it so we were to get a taxi up to the jazmine hotel. We met a girl sitting down at the bar cheering on Manchester called Gaia, who was a student up there but originally from Brighton. She was travelling with Jack and he was at the other hotel watching the game due to a mix-up. The game - well enough said, but we drank rum and enjoyed being by the pool after and there was a Kiwi guy who was pretty interesting there also he gave us all a lift back to town as the Jasmine isn't really walkable, I know I tried to run it previously. That evening we met Jack and they were interested in coming to Cayo Levisa with me in the morning, it was to be a return to the beach for me and more diving.
An almost full bus meant that both Jack and Gaia almost didn't get on. It was lovely to meet a couple that was so young travelling, that day was a really good day on the beach, a stunning unspoilt resort, no you couldn't call it that it blended in and the side we were it was very hidden, and round the end, it was really like a deserted beach. The trip was bloody good so far.
I had the intention of diving but the equipment was away being serviced in Havana, such a shame I wanted to report on it. Returning on the bus I was facing a dilemma to stay longer or head for Trinidad, I was having a great time and by now the group had grown to quite an impressive bunch. Still, I was to burn a trail for all of them to come ;)
Trinidad and the Ferrari of women oh and more
I struck out on my own as I had a quite tight schedule, the one thing which would have made me stay was another longer Floyd trek, this didn't seem to be possible and I was just in time at 8.00 am to get on the bus, 3 hours to Havana and a change and a wait of nearly 2 hours then a 5 or so hour trip was a long day. I was to meet "ed" in the station replete with iPhone and Panama and a fast talker. He was leaving Havana due to him spending loads of money, we checked out the zoo together as it was really next door and nothing else was, some cool animals most notable was the rodent called Jutilla (Hutia in English), and there is a cayo called this and is a wilder more pretty version if that's possible of Cayo Levisa. Apparently, the locals in Vinales ate the Jutilla when the guidebooks incorrectly tell you snake and rat. We caught the bus and off we set.
There was a stunning girl on the bus and I discovered by asking her where she came from - Spain, but of course with that rough cut style hair, bags of style and just the right attitude. Shame she got off at Cienfuegos, a stop I was going to make, but in the end, it was good to spend longer in Trinidad. She sat alone at the back, I don't think anyone felt worthy including myself, and having plucked up the courage to simply ask her where she was from in the station I was spent. Then another guy had no choice but to get on and sit next to her, he got on somewhere I don't recall and I wondered to myself if ever that has happened to me and came up quickly with a - NO. I told him when the bus left her and Cienfuegos how unlucky he had been to sit next to the Ferarri of women, he understood and said something funny about "should have just rolled over and had a cuddle" and this was also "ed" a lad from Sheffield living in Shoreditch, so we now have 2 ed-s in the mix. Two jiniteros got on at Cienfuegos, and they were of a class above the usual, they struck quickly and befriended the first ed I had met and ended up tagging along with him in search of accommodation in Trinidad. I figured it would be good to find my own and not go with a tout straight off the bus. But this didn't work, the casas seem to be good or not so good in Trinidad, and it took me a while to find a good one. There were some Norweigian girls on the bus who Ed liked and it was a good feeling to be pulling into Trinidad, I had been drinking pretty heavily in the run-up and took my first night off in a while. I missed the Norwegians but so too did ed1 he was ever the gentleman and a jinitero snatched from under him! They are a cheeky lot, what I didn't know was if it was the guys staying with ed1. The following evening we were supposed to be meeting in 'Casa De La Musica' on the steps at 8.30 John, Dera Jack and Gaia, only John showed, Jack and Gaia were struck by a problem with Jack's bank card and were in Havana. They had wanted to do this "rave in the cave" thing and would miss it. It was quite a big night and all showed up including Dera and a couple of Irish girls who had a great sense of humour. Also, an attractive blonde who was dancing away earlier in Casa De La Musica and her mother, oh and ed2 as well. Then there was also Owen, the group was pretty big now and much fun was had. The cave is really just that, a massive cave with stalactites and after walking up to it via a disused church its a hell of an experience this club, is a must-do on a Saturday night it's called club Ayala.
There was a stillness that made mid-day unbearable for most in the town itself. Such a gorgeous town of cobbled streets and plazas and churches, old colonial city of Trinidad- reminded me of Grenada in Nicaragua as it's a bit rough around the edges and not up to the colonial splendour that is Antigua in Guatemala.
Good museums and beaches within reach of a taxi and A magnificent countryside which in fact is ever present no matter the location in Cuba. Playa Ancon was done a few times though notable now was rain on a daily basis. Ancon is quite a nice beach with a large hotel spoiling things a bit. I was there first on Sunday and it was lively with football and volleyball and many locals.
Jack and Gaia, Dera 2 other London girls and I set off on a horse ride, Galloping away after getting the feel I was thrown from the front and I managed to keep clear of the bucking bronco's hooves and get back on. We visited a nice waterfall swam and it was another great day. I was never again comfortable on this loco of a horse who did not like to be galloped. Again we had some rain but thankfully it backed off. We stopped by this farm and had sugar cane juice freshly squeezed. Dera cast quite the che guevara figure on his horse with this beard he had been growing, a popular style among backpackers it has to be said.
Instead of leaving Trinidad I hung around and decided to do the steam train tour of the old sugar cane countryside, and I was glad I did. It was the four of us again and a great experience I will always remember. A guy was singing on the train and just was starting to make up the words after a moment, it was most funny. We also saw a pig getting cut up click here Pig Carving Video. We were all going to head down to Santiago to Cuba on a mammoth bus trip of 12 hours, but Dera didn't make it. We had a decent last night out on the town but it hadn't been the best - time to move on.
Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa
We didn't plan on staying long in Santiago de Cuba, I couldn't due to time and the others were all keen to see the also heavily recommended Baracoa. We had to do one night and got in a crappy casa, and the rain was very heavy, for the rest of the night. I was knackered due to the late last night and bus trip. We were straight back out for the 5 hours to Baracoa.
In Baracoa I felt my time was short and discovered that I had not a great choice of flights out, otherwise, I would miss my onward flight back to London, also I hadn't yet done Havana. On the bus, I met up with a Turkish guy living in London Kerem and he was already booked onto the flight I needed and also had flown on my identical flights from London and return flight too. So it made sense to hook up en route as it were. But first, the charms of Baracoa awaited- if it would stop raining. The first evening another run, down the Malecon and past the baseball stadium, an amazingly beautiful and weird combination of fishing communities, boats with fishermen bringing in the catch piglets goats and palms galore lagoons bridges made of 100 planks, beaches baseball stadium and battered seafront of the town. I did about 6 miles and knackered myself for the evening but, it was a truly memorable time that will be etched into my brain. I was looking for Playa Blanco and in fact stumbled into a military zone, making things equally bizarre. With my GPS watch on I didn't want to be near or in this area, there were steel targets and no people around, but I shouldn't have been there, time to turn back, or I wouldn't make it.
There are many swimming opportunities in and around Baracoa as there are many rivers and waterfalls and beaches, there is el Yunque the local "mountain" which I regret didn't get time to do. And alas I know I will have to return to this part of the world. I didn't much care for the nightlife in this town it was short-lived and expensive and I felt the quality in other parts of Cuba was better, so I didn't really like it and was arguing about paying the entry fee straight to the band, "but it goes to the band" I was told so later again had to kick up when the band comes round as is custom asking for money for drinking and music etc, and selling CD's .. this is Cuba and it works like the council here, you just have to pay twice :) for the same thing...
Ed1 was around but the original group was decimated a fair bit and so it was mostly meeting new backpackers again. I was to head off with Kerem on the flight to Havana shortly. I didn't get to catch up with Dera he still hadn't arrived, my t-shirt got lost in the laundry here but it was a super duper casa apart from this where we stayed. We did a beach and on the last day headed over to player blanco, which is really really tiny and therefore compressed if you are not the only one there. No denying the beauty again. I simply have to return to this country - I am not done yet, and still, Havana to go, so let's get on with the show, get on the plane boy.
Havana and Varadero
As sad as it was to leave the rest to their enjoyment of the beach and Baracoa I set off for Havana. Since It's the capital and therefore I'm likely to return at some point I thought I would join Kerem in Varadero for a night, at least I can comment on it now for you. Great Beach, not much else can be said. Don't buy cigars here (they are 10-15 % more) buy them in the factory store and never off the street, Varadero has a great beach but lousy nightlife, and the food is buffet style. We stayed at the Palma Real and it was ok, but 4 stars never mean 4 stars in Cuba, though it was really ok. One found oneself walking a distance for all. The beach was a block away, but the beach is nice here and the pools are also good. Another night would have been ok, but a week here is way too much. We saw this cabaret in this cave with a pirates theme, though it was freezing until it got rammed, and I was severely tempted to swat a little shit of a jinitero telling me where I couldn't walk unless I had a table him and his mates...yawn. So I'm not crazy about Varadero, and for once we got a result for 25 CUC a private car to take us back to Havana and our casa particular block to boot. There is this one block of casa particulars in Vedado just behind the national hotel in Havana which is full of casa particulars it is also a stunning block and a bit more money to boot. 30 knocked down to 25. I wasn't sure If I was to return here as wanted to stay in old Havana but realising It was my last night, it would make little difference. Hanging out with Kerem made sense sharing cabs etc, so I decided to stick to what I knew. We stayed here the night of our flight from Baracoa you see and we across the hall in neighbouring casas. So we saw an alternate havana the Miramar very much the upper-class suburbs- a bit like some south beach Miami streets I know, and where we were to go our in the Casa De La Musica de Miramar. We had also checked out the Commodor shopping mall earlier in the day and the most fascinating thing is the cigar shop there. Cool, I can get into this cigar thing, shame the stuff kills you.
Casa De La Musica, Miramar Havana
The evening of our last was an anticlimax, we were hounded by jiniteras, who would have made good company had we not had to pay for the chat- so didn't, can you see why it's so unfair on us guys..trying to chat to local cuban girls is almost impossible. They simply don't can't go out. We entered at the opening time of 11 and had to wait almost 2 hours in freezing temperatures before the live music came on. It was good quality when it did but damage was done to wallets with high drinks prices and entry and the temperature meant I even dozed off 2 or 3 times.
I have to say that I really enjoyed running around Havana and having a few more sights to see. On my final day I did a cigar factory tour -the Patargas behind the Capitolio, it was amazing, great and a must-do. I bought rum and cigars 25 Montecristo for 167 CUC about 90 UK pounds. The Museo Des Belle Artes also is very good, if you're pushed for time just do the main Cuban building though. A painting which haunted me since first seeing it somewhere and buying a reproduction was found to be by Victor Manuel called tropical gipsy.
La Gitana Tropical, 1929, Victor Manuel
I managed to sneak two canvases out of Cuba, and that made me very happy the start of an art collection, I purchased them for around 20 CUCs a piece in Trinidad but without any stamps as the artist argued they were artisanal and 'no problem'. If he buys the stamps he can't sell them as the government gets the money and the paintings are twice the cost, a familiar tale so here we all won out for a bit of chance-taking. Great.
I'm closing this article now it's still fresh in my slightly jet-lagged mind but I must get on and start to work again so that I might get back to Cuba real soon. It's one of those destinations I must get back to. I met some great people and hope to see them again one day, I saw some simply stunning scenery and had some frightening moments - being thrown for the first time on a horse, engaged in music and for a brief time was a socialist. The colours of the country are amazing if the food is a bit bland the rum and cigars are tasty, hey now I know why the food is bland, they have no taste buds!
Vaya Con Dios Fidel
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Calvin has loved the Caribbean since first visiting Roatan through loving Scuba Diving. From distinct cultures to common nature the Caribbean delights at every turn.
He hates leaving after any trip and has to console himself by writing and sharing articles and photos on it. You can find and connect with him on linked in here.
Travel, Gaming, Scuba Diving, Skiing and anything to do with water.
People who don't care, politicians doing nothing and needless competitiveness- oh yes and being tired in an airport.
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Guide to Old Havana -https://landed.at/caribbean/cuba/old-havana