I was lucky to be invited to take part in a group trip to Cuba. I’m not usually one to head for tropical destinations, but the invitation from David to join himself and Johnny, both photographer friends I have made via Instagram, was one I couldn’t pass up. This is a long post, so if you would rather browse all the photos in one place, here is a link to my Cuba Flickr Album. But please, read on.
Glasgow to Havana
It was an early start in Glasgow. My taxi picked me up at 3:30am for my 6:05am flight to Amsterdam. It’s only 10 – 15 minutes to the airport, but it wasn’t long before word of delays started circulating around the queue at the departure gate.
In fact the flight was delayed till 7:45am. This was going to make things very tight.
The flight was late but fairly uneventful. As we came into land at Schipol airport, it was already approaching departure time for my connecting flight.
As soon as the landing gear hit the tarmac, I turned on my phone.
My compadres on this trip were, David, making his way from Inverness and Johnny flying from Edinburgh. I knew both had slight delays themselves due to fog in Amsterdam, but they had both departed before me.
As my phone came to life and found a Dutch carrier signal, the Cuba WhatsApp chat sprang to life. “Where are you?”, “You could still make it”, “10 minutes if you run across the airport”. Then the KLM popped up telling me my plane was about to depart. I was in a mild panic to say the least and because we were late they were quick to unload the plane.
I started sprinting through one of the largest airports in the world! The departure time for my flight had well and truly passed. I had to make my way from D gate to the F departure gates. 10 minutes and full speed. My version of full speed, as my jeans fell around my arse, I puffed and panted passing other travellers and along the moving walkways. Eventually my gate came in to view and they were waiting for me. I swiped my boarding card and with relief caught my breath in the gangway onto the plane.
I was met with relieved smiles from my travelling companions. They had been updating the flight crew of my dilemma so they were fully aware of my situation.
I was shown to my seat by a friendly flight attendant. She tried to make me feel better and told me all was well as I sat down, coughing and spluttering, much to the dismay of my neighbour for the next 10 or so hours of the flight. I apologised. We sat on the tarmac for some time. Possibly an hour beyond our intended departure time. I wasn’t complaining. The pilot announced that they were waiting on the last of the baggage to be loaded. This gave me hope that my bags would make the transfer.
The 10 hour flight was thankfully uneventful.
My coughing dissipated and I listened to music and podcasts. Tried to sleep but failed to get anything substantial. Eventually watching a movie, that took me through turbulence somewhere above Bermuda, possibly the remnants of Hurricane Irma which had recently ravaged the north coast of Cuba and devastated many other Caribbean Islands. It wasn’t too long after this that we were descending towards Cuba itself.
I watched the long empty unkempt roads and countryside scroll beneath our plane, catching my first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea. The palm trees and banana trees surrounded by rich red soil. It was overcast. Touch down.
Stepping off the plane, the humidity struck me, I’m a cold weather person. I made my way into the airport stopping to thread my belt through my jeans, while awaiting my companions to catch up.
We made it through security without incident, despite me forgetting to show my tourist visa until prompted by passport control.
We got to baggage reclaim and it soon became clear some of us would not be collecting our luggage.
Johnny received at text from KLM explaining that his bags had not made it onto our flight. I had no cell service so had to assume I was in the same boat.
As advised by the optimistic KLM flight attendants, we went to the lost baggage office window and tried to explain in broken English and terrible attempts in Spanish the dilemma we faced to a group of ladies who appeared to have been through this scenario more times than they would care to.
Johnny and myself were listed on a dot matrix print-out which we were handed to check our details. David was not on the list and one of the exasperated ladies requested he return to the carousel and ‘look carefully’ for his bag. She then looked at me and told me to do the same. She had been able to tell me where my bags were. Johnny was told he would get his bags the next day.
David’s bags eventually appeared, but it was obvious I would not be reunited with mine. I hesitantly left the reclaim area, looking over my shoulder, if they made some last-minute appearance.
We entered arrivals and pushed passed the crowds and found our contact who then led us on to the currency exchange office where I swapped around 360 Euro for 400 cucs, or Cuban convertible currency. We were then shown our taxi. My head was still spinning from tiredness and the disappointment from losing my bags. We had each loaded half of our luggage with clothes and sundries to hand out to those affected by the hurricane, not to mention our own belongings.
Onwards, we approached Havana on roads through plantation fields and shacks before reaching a dual carriageway leading into the city.
The centre of Havana is a warren of narrow streets. Ornate, dilapidated colonial buildings stacked in a seemingly haphazard way.
Our taxi was seemingly took a rather contrived route, as we saw several places on more than one occasion. However we had pre-paid, so maybe this was ‘the tourist route’ or a one-way system.
We stopped in one of the narrow streets and off-loaded (with our hand luggage). We rang the doorbell to the casa that would be our base for the next two days.
We entered up a steep dark stairway and onto a landing and lounge area that was open to the elements. A spiral staircase continued up to another level to a dining area that led onto a balcony high above the street.
The wooden spiral stairs led up to the room we’d be staying in. Green leaves dangled in the void, around the stairs, blending outdoors with indoors.
From the upper landing where our room was located, there was access to the dining/bar area which was essentially the rooftop. The lives of Havanans continued across the surrounding rooftops and on the streets below.
Later, we gathered in the lounge and met with the rest of the team we’d be traveling with over the coming days. Our guide would be Rayner, a pleasant young man and a very proud Cuban.
The roll-call consisted of the following:
Rebekah, a New Zealander on her travels around the world.
Kieth and Michael, two older loose canons from Australia.
Janine, also from Oz who had come via Canada and the U.S.
Jo, Australian, who had recently been in Africa and would continue on to Central America.
Katrina and David, honeymooners, yet again from Australia.
Then there was us, David the Welshman from Inverness who had put this trip together for us then Johnny and myself, two Scots in a hot country.
We introduced ourselves and gave the reasons we each had for wanting to undertake a visit to Cuba. Once pleasantries were out of the way, Johnny and I explained our baggage situation to Rayner in the hope a native speaker would be able to get to the bottom of the situation. He did his best to get more information, but it didn’t look like we’d be getting our bags bag that night.
We were hot and tired and some of us had been in the same clothes since leaving Scotland. Despite this we went out into the dense hot air of the Havana night.
Our guide led us out through the dark streets. Locals were out mingling and socialising.
The venue for our first meal was the D’next diner. It’s bright decor and air conditioning was a contrast to the steamy darkness outside.
I don’t remember what I had to eat. I do remember spaghetti sounding quite appealing at the time. But I do remember my first drink though, a Cuba Libre of course. What else could it be?
We were all tired and we had a walking tour of the city arranged for the next morning, so we made our way back to the Casa excited for what the next day held. This excitement was tempered slightly by the fact that our luggage was still unaccounted for.
Havana Day Two
I started the first full day with a shower to combat the growing discomfort caused by a lack of fresh clothing.
We had breakfast on the rooftop. Food composed of a variety of fruits. Pineapple, guava and mango juice, accompanied by bread rolls, cheese, ham and scrambled eggs.
Today our city guide was Jenny. She spoke great English had a good knowledge of her city.
It was hot, too hot for a black t-shirt and denim jeans.
We made our way down the main shopping street Calle Obispo. Quite different from European city streets, there were only a handful of boutique style stores showing their wares in the window. Most establishments consisted of a large doorway only and what lies within is a mystery.
One of the first stops was a square with the original post office and a cathedral on the opposite side. This was Plaza de Catedral. We took in the cathedral itself, full of ornate idols and a beautiful interior then paid for access to climb one of its towers. This gave us views across the plaza itself and across the harbour towards the lighthouse on the other side of the water.
The tour took us through old Havana where we paid a brief visit to the indoor market where our guide left us. This was probably the reason we decided to stop for a beer at a modern microbrewery on the waterfront.
Classic Taxi Tour
After the official tour we decided on the taxi tour of the city that would see us driven around in the very Cuban 1950s cars. They wait for unsuspecting tourists in the main square and after we haggled for a price and chosen our cars we set off across Havana.
The tour was well worth it, and a great way to see the wider city. We stopped at Revolutionary square, with its large portraits of the Cuban heroes emblazoned in steel sculpture on the sides of the largest buildings. Across the square sat the massive tower with turkey cultures souring around its flanks.
At the foot of this obelisk is a large white marble statue of José Marti the Cuban hero and revolutionary philosopher.
Hotel for WiFi and baggage update
After the taxi ride, the Hotel Inglaterra was a rather refined old establishment where we all regrouped for cooling drinks and my first dose of Cuban wifi. When I logged on it was with some relief that I received my first notification that my bags were at least in the KLM system. It was our plan to make our way to the airport lost property later and hopefully be reunited with our luggage.
Return to the Airport
Johnny and myself made our way back to the Casa to organise a taxi back to the airport and find our luggage. The Casa manager, mystified why we might need a taxi to go to the airport at this time, made the call for us. With the taxi ordered, we paced around impatiently. 15 minutes we were told. Those minutes passed very slowly. Neither of us sure our ride would ever come. Nothing seemed that reliable to us at this time. It didn’t help that we were warned that the lost property department closed around 7:00pm. We wouldn’t get there till 5:30pm or 6:00pm.
The taxi arrived, maybe only a few minutes after the arranged time. We were jumpy though. So every minute counted. It was a nervous 30 minute journey, but our driver stopped us outside the porta-cabin type office that was ‘Lost Property’. It seemed to be a regular stop for the driver.
Inside a chain-linked enclosure there were a few anxious looking people already waiting. It was outdoors but I could see in to one open office. A spartan room with a portrait of Che Guevara on the wall and a small cuban flag on the desk.
We couldn’t get many answers. There was one security guard, but no-one directly from the lost property department we could talk to.
We spoke to a woman with decent English. She was waiting to find out if anyone had found her purse which she had lost.
It turned out the representative from KLM was in the airport building somewhere and we were awaiting their return.
We decided on a two-pronged approach. I would wait here at lost property while Johnny would try to find the KLM rep in the main building.
I waited more, there was very little happening. The only development was with the woman waiting for news on her purse. The outcome wasn’t a positive one. After she was given the news, she gave me a dejected look, but wished me luck.
Time was ticking and I was wondering how Johnny was getting on. Part of me was paranoid he was in a queue waiting to claim his bag and he was waiting for me to turn up. He returned 20-30 minutes later with a welcome bottle of water and some news that we were in the right place and there would be someone in attendance soon. Whatever that meant.
From one of the glass doorways a woman would occasionally stick her head out, look around then withdraw. Still no sign of what was going on.
Eventually some of the other waiting people were invited in to this room, later leaving with their bubble wrapped luggage.
Eventually it was our turn and we were taken into the room. We had to pass over our passports and leave our bags we were carrying. We were invited by a man to follow him down a corridor in to one of several locked rooms. We were then told to look for our bags among the shelves. We scanned the room and saw nothing that looked familiar. My heart sank. Then, from behind a woman shouted something to the man sounded something along the lines of “you’re in the wrong room!”.
The woman then lead us further through more hallways until we were back in the main arrivals area and the baggage carousel. And there they were, our bags, at last.
We were led back to the lost property area for clearance and after a high-five, Johnny and myself grabbed a taxi to return back to Havana.
David sent a few texts from the town asking how we were getting on. The rest of our group were meeting later for food and we were hoping to join them. We decided to keep them in suspense and show all on our arrival.
Fresh threads and Havana nights
At was really satisfying just to pull on some fresh clean clothes never mind have our bags back. We met the guys at restaurant Lamparilla 361, a contemporary, stylish looking bar and grill place that did a fine line in mojitos and burritos.
We were welcomed with a cheer, and some relief I imagine when we turned up in our clean clothes. It was so good to have all our gear and we could at last start enjoying this trip properly.
We would head out after the meal to try some watering holes, despite the early start we had waiting for us the next morning. We had reason to celebrate so a bunch off us went to the Floridita, a famous haunt of Ernest Hemingway’s. The Cuba Libres started flowing to the sound of band playing in the corner. In the other corner a bronze of Hemingway leans on the bar. Old-school bar staff with red-tailed jackets ply their trade shaking cocktail behind the bar.
It was a great evening full of song an atmosphere and relief. I didn’t really want to leave, but eventually we had to admit we needed some rest before our 3am start.
Santiago de Cuba Day Three
The main reason we were so desperate to get our bags back, was because we were flying to the far south-east of the island. So it would have been unlikely that our luggage would have ever caught up with us.
It was 3am rise for the airport. Our bus took us to the domestic departure terminal where we had a couple of hours to kill and short strong coffee to drink.
It was a two-hour flight to Santiago de Cuba were we disembarked into bright warm sunshine. In the tiny arrivals area, we thankfully collected our bags before passing through some basic security who checked we had collected our own bags, not someone else’s.
We were soon on our bus heading out for our accommodation in Santiago de Cuba, ‘Hero City of the Republic of Cuba’ known for it’s leading role in significant events during the Revolution. The people of Santiago were the first to rise up in arms against government troops in 1956, and it was in Santiago on January 1st 1959, that Fidel Castro declared the triumph of the Revolution in a broadcast message to the country and the world.
After dropping off bags and being introduced to our hosts in the Casa, we were back out exploring.
First stop was the scene of Fidel’s initial foray in to revolution against the Batista regime on July 26th 1953. The date which would later become the name of Fidel’s political movement.
The Moncada Barracks themselves are still pockmarked with bullet holes from that historical raid. Inside, the Barracks themselves now function as a school and a museum. Our guides took us round the exhibits and filled us in on each item and its historical significance. From blood stained uniforms of those cut down by bullets to some of the weapons actually used in the fight. It was a fascinating tour and you really got a sense that this place was where it all started and what struck me most, was just how young these rebels were when they decided to take on the establishment and change forever the course of their nation.
We left the building passing classes of children in smart uniforms then out on to the playing fields where some of us captured images of the building’s facade. We were ushered onto the bus as we had lots to fit in today.
Next stop at the entrance to the city was one of the most commanding monuments I’ve ever seen. The Antonio Maceo Monument in the Revolutionary Square is considered Santiago’s most outstanding monument of the 20th century. 16 meters high, the highest in the country, it honours Antonio Maceo Grajales. It is flanked on one side by 23 machetes that rise up from the ground, and represent March 23rd 1878, the date when the independence fight was renewed after the Protesta de Baraguá.
Sitting in front of the monument was a smaller monolith featuring a black and white photo of Fidel Castro, kitted out in full fighting regalia including back pack and rifle staring out across what I imagine are the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where his revolutionaries took a foothold.
We moved on to our next destination, the Ifigenia Cemetery, where they lay to rest the great and the good. The greatest and goodest, of them all, Fidel had his ashes entered within a large rock. The grave itself was relatively humble compared to many others. We were not allowed to take photos. Guards kept their distance, but were still a deterrent.
Graves of the famous Bacardi family and one of Cuba’s greatest heroes of all, José Martí (1853–95) were here. The beautiful bright white marble reflected the intense heat we felt as our guide showed us around.
It should be noted, that although you are not allowed to photograph Fidel’s grave, you can take photos around the rest of the cemetery, at a price of course. From memory it was around 5cuc. I’m still not sure how I feel about this practice.
San Pedro de la Roca Castle, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Our next destination was perched on a cliff top, overlooking the Caribbean. The heat was intense as it was just after mid-day as we approached an old limestone, European looking castle. San Pedro De La Roca, was much cooler inside thankfully.
Once again we were told that we would have to pay to take our ‘big’ cameras in-site. We decided, it wasn’t worth it and left our collection of SLRs with the attendants at the entrance. They gave us a cloakroom ticket and locked them in an old wooden wardrobe. iPhones would have to do the job of recording this place.
We were given a brief history of the 17th century Castle which guards the entrance to Santiago’s port. The castle was built by the Spanish two years after the defeat of the Armada by the Elizabeth I’s Navy to protect their territories in the new world.
The castle is built on a cliff face and has many levels of defence including gun emplacements, thick walls and steep sets of stairs linking the many levels.
We worked our way down to the lowest part passing cannon and old magazine buildings where the powder and other munitions would have been stored.
It overlooked the mouth of the bay with its smaller islands and turkey vultures soaring along the flanks of the castle casting with an enquiring eye to see if we had left any morsels for them to eat.
We had a limited time to explore, 15 minutes I think, and we had to run up the stairs to make it on time. Not easy in the heat with sandals either!
It was a fascinating place, worthy of its Unesco World Heritage Site designation.
Lunch in the hills
Bomby, our dedicated bus driver loaded us on the bus and took us up what could only be described as a dirt track. I was surprised the bus even made it. His recommendation for lunch was an airy establishment perched higher up the hill, looking beyond the castle and out to sea.
It was a family home with and upper rooftop eating area protected from the sun by an awning and allowing the sea air to cool us down.
Drinks were served and I got my first test of the local Bucanero Beer, a refreshing lager that was mentioned more than once in a book I’d read before leaving. It was very refreshing after the heat of the sun.
I ordered the shrimp dish for lunch since we were near the sea. It was in a simple tomato sauce and was delicious. After the food, a few more beers and the odd rum were consumed too.
Evening cocktails at the Casa Granda
We returned to Santiago de Cuba along the coast, passing idyllic looking inlets with clear waters and thick tree covered slopes rising from the water. This soon gave way to the urban sprawl of the city itself.
After cleaning up back at the Casa, we made our way into the centre of Santiago where we had a short evening tour taking in the square and the main hotel where we enjoyed rooftop drinks at the Hotel Casa Granda Terrace Bar.
The impressive hotel overlooked the square which itself sits high above the port area of the city with commanding views to the Sierra Maestra mountains across the bay.
Free day in Santiago de Cuba Day Four
We made the most of this free day to explore the city more. It started with the Rum Museum. It’s never too early for a rum, especially in Cuba. The museum is small and pretty basic, explaining the processes and displaying various types of rum. Some rather expensive Havana Clubs were on show. Of course it included a little taster.
We then moved across the town centre to the Balcón de Velázquez, the site of an old Spanish fort. There was not much to see of the structure itself despite paying 5cuc for entry. There were, however, commanding views of the bay below. We also had an interesting discussion with a local who tried to persuade us to take him on as our guide for the day. Although pleasant and informative enough, we decided not to take him app on his offer. In part down to his assurance that no one would be stealing our cameras for fear of ‘disappearing’ within the prison system!
Nearby was the ‘Oldest House in Cuba’ now the Diego Velázquez Museum. Originally built in the 16th century it could even be one of the oldest in the whole of the Americas.
The rooms were well conserved, with many ornate fixtures and fittings. The intricate shutters casting their shadows into the dark interior.
We were chased around the inner courtyard by over attentive museum guides who were keen to secure tips from us at the end. Unbeknownst to them, they were chasing stingy Scotsmen who had already met their allotted tipping threshold for the day.
We visited the Hotel Casa Granda for lunchtime refreshments and said hello to some of our fellow travellers who had the same idea.
We spent the afternoon exploring the town towards the port. It became very industrial and a lot less touristy. The three of us stood out quite a bit here, and it wasn’t long before one person who approached us was offering us black market rum. We politely refused, despite his persistence. We made our way deeper into the more residential areas of this port town, trying to capture daly life of the locals as we went.
The town centre was up hill, we made our way through the warren of locals going about their daily lives until we were once again in the familiar territory of the square.
Passing a small bookstore, David popped inside and started browsing some old vinyl records. Interest piqued, Johnny and I entered the store. Its walls covered with interesting artefacts, books, pamphlets and posters.
Probably most interesting of all was the proprietor. A silver haired gent, leathery skinned but with a friendly face. He asked where we were from. On hearing ‘Scotland’, his response was ‘Sean Connery!’ Thumbs up and a smile.
David purchased a vinyl record from him and asked if Conrad, the owner, would sign it for him. This was a great opportunity to capture his portrait. Asking him to sit by the doorway, we grabbed his picture, then departed with a ‘thank you’ and a wave.
We decided it would be the perfect end to the afternoon if it was spent with a cool beer in a shady bar, and that’s exactly what we did.
After returning to our Casa to freshen up and a wee lie down, we were taken by Rayner to a local restaurant a short walk away. It appeared at first as though we were entering someones house. Climbing upstairs before being shown a table for the group. It had a rooftop view across the city and we were serenaded by a couple, a singer and guitar player, the cocktails flowed including an introduction to Canchanchara a traditional honey and lemon rum cocktail, and the food was great too. I did go for shrimps again. It was a very friendly intimate evening with fantastic company. I was showing Rayner our guide photos of Scottish castles and some snowy scenery. When he saw pictures of myself snowboarding he exclaimed how he would love to try it. In return, Rayner took pride in showing me his father’s artwork. Fantastical, dream-like paintings of Cuban jungles painted in vivid greens and tropical aqua colours.
After dinner we walked back to the main town square. On the rooftop of the Hotel Casa Granda we indulged in a few speciality cocktails.
We said goodnight to Rayner and went on to try a few more specialities as well as a visit to the ground floor for more wifi access to end the night.
Camagüey via Boyamo Day Five
We left our Casa in Santiago. Leaving a few presents and goodies with our Casa Mama who had looked after us. I don’t think we impressed her judging by her response. Despite this I gave her a hug and took a parting photo before getting on to the bus that was waiting in the narrow street.
It would be a long travel day, along the Carretera Central with a few stops along the way.
We left the town and entered the surrounding, greener countryside. We passed through lots of lush vegetation before reaching the next destination.
Our first stop was Bayamo. Predating both Havana and Santiago, it has been cast for time immemorial as the city that kick-started Cuban independence. Despite its place in History, we were only paying a flying visit. After a quick comfort break, we walked through the square to view one of the churches. Little buggies drawn by goats took children around the square. In the tropical sunshine, the colours dazzled. However, it was a quiet little spot, with a subdued bustle of people circulating the main square with its colonial facades. We literally spent ten minutes here. We were on a tight schedule and it was a long road trip today. By noon we had left on our bus to continue our journey North West.
A couple of hours later, we pulled off the main Carretera Central to stop at a shady lunch spot. This was the Cuban version of motorway services. A far more pleasant version than the road stops we have in the U.K. I might add. It was an open air bar that served food and it was covered with a high thatch roof allowing cooling air to pass through. As well as lunch, we took the opportunity to buy a batch of beers for the onboard fridge we had on our bus.
This was nice spot to people watch, and busloads of other tourists would offload and join us. As we were leaving some Dutch folk descended on the poor barman with a huge order for beers. I grabbed an ice-cream before loading back on to the bus, but before leaving, I did have to jump off the bus and quickly grab a photograph of the large billboard featuring Che dominating the roundabout next to our lunch spot.
Camagüey and bike taxi tour
So around seven hours after leaving Santiago de Cuba, we reached the city of Camagüay. We were shown to our respective Casas, Johnny and myself were lead into a hallway with an almost dilapidated staircase that took you to the first floor. The room was OK and did feature a print of a wonderfully cheesy glamorous lady on the shower curtain in the bathroom. I wasn’t sure what to think of this. We wouldn’t be staying long in here. We quickly dropped our bags and met everyone on the street where we were introduced to our teams of cycle taxis who would be taking us on rapid early evening tour of the city.
Three of us crammed into each of the rear double seats and set off with our drivers racing other over the cobbled streets of Camagüay. Stopping in the square, we investigated the church, the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad with its baroque frescoes. Despite its size, Cuba’s third largest city has managed to keep much of its colonial heritage, and exploring the city’s winding streets is half the fun. The city was planned in a deliberately irregular and confusing pattern hoping to disorient any would-be assailants. We were then transported, led by our guide to an artists quarter of the town. We explored another small square and a gallery filled with artworks by local artists.
Resisting the urge to purchase anything from the gallery (which was kind of pricey) we returned to our accommodation to get changed for dinner. Before heading out to dinner we had a slice of cake to celebrate Katrina’s birthday, then shared a cheeky shot of Rum with Kieth and Michael the Ozzy lads.
Dinner was back near the artist quarter and took the form of a large buffet. I must have circled the large table covered in rice, beans, pork, chicken and other goodies, maybe two or three times. I made sure I had my fill, it was a fantastic little restaurant, but we eventually made our way out onto the streets once more. After a walk through the town and a long pedestrianised street, we ended up at another rooftop bar in the Gran Hotel.
Dancing on the Ceiling
Cocktails were the order of the evening. It wan’t busy but the music was playing loud as we looked across the city at night.
Our group were the only people on the rooftop and it wasn’t long before the cocktails were taking effect. We started talking with the bar staff and by midnight they were attempting to teach is some salsa. I’m afraid the state I was in meant I was a hopeless student, despite the best efforts of my tutor. It was great fun though, and the evening continued with the staff playing our music from our phones and joining in on more dancing. I’m sure we provided as much entertainment for them as they did for us.
We had great fun on our one and only night in Camagüey.
Day six would be another early start.
Humanitarian drops day six
Our mornings travel would be an eye opener. We had brought with us some basic medical supplies and toiletries. I had managed to secure a batch of kids summer clothes from Trespass and we would distribute these as we traveled. We left the decision to Reyner and Bomby the bus driver. They traveled this road regularly and knew who would be affected the most from the recent Hurricane.
We stopped at a school first, David had brought colouring books and pens, pencils etc. These were gladly accepted by the teacher. We carried on, heading for Sancti Spiritus and stopped a few more times. The most poignant for me was by a small shack with family sitting outside. Their home looked like it was built from driftwood. Our friends took some clothes out to the family. Holding up t-shirts and shorts to gauge the size, the Trespass clothes were wholeheartedly appreciated.
When our guide returned we wanted to know the family’s story, we asked how they were coping. Reyner relayed the message from the father, “We are just grateful to be alive…” It was truly humbling. Especially when you saw the smiles on their faces and how stoic they all must be to carry on in this way.
Everything changed as we entered Sancti Spiritus. The town is located in Central Cuba and is one of the oldest Cuban European settlements. Leaving our bus we strolled through the pleasant town. Passing a few tourist shops selling Che licence plates and other paraphernalia, our walk took us down to the river which was spanned by a humpback bridge. Palm trees and shanty like houses lined the opposite bank. On the near side of the bridge was The Taberna Yayabo, a pleasant shaded bar featuring flags of the world hanging from the ceiling. This was our lunch venue today, we made our way inside where I helped myself to a cheeky rum cocktail of some type and ordered some food.
Reyner introduced us to his father, their mutual pride for each other was clear in their beaming smiles.
With lunch out of they way it was a slow walk back to the bus, taking in the vibrant colours of the town and grabbing some more photographs.
We finally arrived at the spectacular World Heritage site of Trinidad around 5:00 p.m. We got straight out into the town for our orientation walk. It’s a very pretty town with lots of colonial history well-preserved in the brightly coloured buildings, grand mansions and cobbled streets.
The layout of the town was on a hill-side, with the prettier older part of the town at the top. We started from one of two town squares, where youngsters congregated for wi-fi and the older generation partook in chess games in the club across the way.
One of our early stops was in one of the ration stores that you can find throughout Cuba. It was the end of the day and I guessed (hoped) that was the reason most of the shelves were empty. This is where locals could pick up their government issue basics, like rice, cooking oil, eggs and other sundries.
The inside of the building was rather austere as you might imagine. In one corner though was a quirky composition of a rickety old bike leaning against the pink wall with a faded portrait of some kittens hanging above. This was in stark contrast to the lady who was running the store. A strict looking matron who looked like she would take no crap. An attitude that most likely helps when working in such a place.
Trinidad is also steeped in religion, such as Santeria, which is one of the Afro-Cuban religions (related to voodoo). We visited one such temple where we were introduced to the priest and allowed to look around. The idol (literally a doll sat on a high chair) in the centre of the room was dressed all in white and a shrine was built in the corner of the room behind it with devotions to the sea. We were not permitted to speak so it was impossible to communicate the strange feeling I got as I looked around the room.
We planned to follow this later by visiting a Santeria dance performance later on.
Santeria Dance Experience
At one centre of Santerian dance, we spoke with the owner, who persuaded us to join the audience. To be fair, it was really just our group in attendance, with a few locals hanging around the bar. There were musicians playing on stage who looked like they were going through some inter-band struggles, but they soon made way to a pair of heavy-set dancers, dressed only in colourful karate style loose trousers.
They did not waste any time in separating Johnny and David from their drinks and cigars, dragging them up on to the stage. It was all taken in good humour, but I don’t think the guy’s dance moves impressed the hosts. It looked like a cross between a Maori Hakka and some Brazilian capoeira with large machetes thrown in, literally thrown in! All done to driving drum beats. It also involved stuffing the blades down the front of their trousers and licking the edge of the blade. I assume this had some fertility connotations.
With the dance over, much to Johnny and David’s relief, we nervously finished off a few more rounds of rum and disappeared into the night.
We sought out a local bar and found a tiny hole in the wall, complete with bathtub and a ceiling covered in bank notes from around the world. We chatted with locals in the tiny candle lit bar, we should have known better as we had an early outing planned for the morning.
Parque el Cubano Day seven
We had a couple of option for the day’s activities, the beach or a national park. We decided to opt for a hike in the national park as we had been in towns most of the trip and fancied seeing some countryside. If we had time, we’d fit in the beach afterward.
Janine, Kieth and Mike left us to it and explored the town themselves. The rest of us jumped on the bus and took the dirt road along a river to the trailhead of a marked route. The Parque el Cubano consisted of a tumbling river and dense forest. The air was humid and it was warm, but at least we were not in direct sunshine. Reyner talked us through some of the indigenous flora, including a tree called the ‘tourist tree’ due to its flakey skin.
The hike was less than an hour and easy going, but led us to a fantastic jade coloured rock pool. It was a busy spot, with many other visitors there, cooling themselves in the water, splashing around and having a great time.
We had brought some beers with us so languished in the cooling water with beer in hand.
It was a pleasant walk back across the river and returning to the bus. We had decided that since the weather seamed to be on the turn, we would make a quick dash just to see the beach.
As we circled the lagoons near the coast, the rain lashed off the bus window. It felt more like a visit to a Scottish beach, not my first experience of a beach in the Caribbean.
We pulled in to a hotel complex, it felt empty. It was still only a week or so since hurricane Irma had hit this coastline.
The rain continued to lash, and no one looked keen to get off the bus. All except Rebekah who made it known she wanted a photo of herself standing in the Caribbean sea. I obliged and followed her out across the sands. It was torrential as she ran into the water up to her knees. I rattled off some shots in the rain until my camera decided it had enough of the rain. My EOS 6D just packed in. All read-outs were dead. This had happened to me before. Even though it is weather sealed, if humidity is too much, the camera will just shut down. I had the shots for Rebeka and my camera would just need some time in a dry room to recover.
We ran back into the coach, wringing wet. We all decided to leave and look for a spot for lunch.
On the way back into Trinidad, we stopped at a friendly little restaurant for lunch. From what I could work out, this seems to be a relative of Reyner’s, or possibly just a close friend. The rain continued to lash down as we took our seats and chose what to eat. More shrimp, pork and chicken was washed down with drinks, cocktails or a beer. Once we were done it was back to our Casas for a rest and a clean up.
From Casa to Cavern
That evening we made our way in to town. The whole gang was together once again and after a quick stop in a bar for yet another rum cocktail, we agreed on a fantastic looking restaurant which, as with many Cuban establishments seemed to expand back from a half-ruined exterior. On old rustic dilapidated facade gave way to beautifully laid out dining area which felt like someone’s home. The place settings used reprints of old revolutionary newspapers, they made for good reading while we waited for our food.
Those of us who wanted to decided that after dinner we would try the ‘Disco in a Cave’. After a few more drinks we found ourselves working our way up the hillside on which the town is built. The streets narrowed and became alleyways. The alleyways became dirt tracks and eventually we found ourselves at the entrance to Disco Ayala, Las Cuevas. There was an international collection of partygoers waiting to get in.
The gates were closed and it seemed the disco didn’t open till later. We hung about and swapped stories of travels from around the world.
When the gates did open we were among the first to descend into the depths. The cave was huge, purple and green lights bathed the rock interior over the dancefloor. Despite being a cave, it still smelled like every bar toilet I’ve been in. In fact I paid the toilets a visit, and I swore I wouldn’t go in again!
Our tickets entitled us to a complimentary drink so we got them in and tried to find a table that didn’t have water pouring onto it from above.
It soon filled up and the music was going, but the novelty was short-lived and we felt around midnight that we were about to turn into pumpkins.
We gathered everyone together and returned to the alleyways and descended the hill back to our Casas.
The road to Havana day eight
We had an earlyish start to the day. It would be a long haul back to Havana with a few stops on the way.
The first of which was the Manaca Iznaga tower in the Valle de los Ingenios. It was erected in 1750 to observe and control the slaves working in the sugar cane fields around the plantation hacienda. Currently, locals line the approach selling their wares including hats, blankets and shirts.
We bought tickets to access the tower which narrowed the higher you climbed. At 7 stories high and 136 steps to the top, it’s worth the climb for the view of the valley. I imagined that as well as its grim original use, the tower would have been an ideal lookout post during the revolution.
While walking through the grounds of the hacienda a man thrust a small kestrel on to my hand. I felt bad for the bird, but thought I’d try to photograph it while it sat bemused on my hand. It was free to fly, but was must have been imprinted on the owner, who then proceeded to chase me around for payment. Begrudgingly I caved and gave him a few CUCs.
The road back to the coach took in the local train station where I saw some locals commuting along the rails using a hand cranked railway car, just like you would see in the old movies and cartoons as a kid.
Once back on the road, we distributed some of the toiletries, medicine, and clothes we still had. Toothpaste, sticking plasters, and water purification treatments were amongst the parcels we dropped off.
We reached Santa Clara, where we were to visit the mausoleum of Che Guevara. However it was days before an anniversary celebration of his death and some military personnel near the monument turned us away from the official entrance.
We made our way around to a large square, which was decked out with seating for the visitors to the event. We got a great view of the giant statue of Che, carrying his rifle, looking across the city. Santa Clara was one of the first major cities to be liberated by Castro’s army in December 1958.
It was time to eat so it was off to an airy little restaurant in Villa Clara for a buffet style lunch.
The rest of the afternoon consisted mostly of the very long drive back to Havana. The road was a poorly maintained and rather empty motorway. Every now and then a farmer stood in the central reservation selling cheeses and other produce.
We would stop at a services for a rest and what marked it out from motorway services back in the U.K. were the rum based drinks you could buy! I’m sure these were not intended for drivers, but their thirsty companions.
The bus rolled in to Havana, and dropped us where most would spend the last night.
La Gárgola hostel was directly opposite the fort that guards the mouth of Havana’s harbour.
Inside it was pretty stylish and modern and had the strongest shower of all the places we had stayed. We took advantage and freshened up before heading out into the town for something to eat and drink.
The dark streets were only illuminated by the occasional stall, living rooms and bars.
We made our way back to Lamparilla for burritos and Cuba Libres.
We scoured the city for places to drink, ending up at another rooftop bar. The wind picked up and rain showers forced us to seek shelter inside for our last drinks of the night.
Last Morning in Havana Day nine
We woke and had breakfast ‘No eggs’ we were told, it didn’t matter, we had a full morning planned before we would have to leave for the airport.
Johhny, David and myself set off along the Malecon the extensive promenade that runs the length of the city’s shore line.
The sea wall was being slammed by the large waves off of the Atlantic. Brooding skies above only gave a suggestion of what it must have been like during hurricane Irma.
Much of the public squares and buildings along the front showed signs of the severe weather only weeks before. The authorities had moved quickly and it looked like things would be tidied up pretty soon. The buildings themselves oozed faded grandeur with paint flaking off walls and the walls themselves crumbling. The colonial buildings contrasted with the soviet style residential high-rise apartments and the office blocks of the city.
The waves continued to crash over the wall and on to the road itself. On one occasion Johnny and myself narrowly avoided being drenched. David caught it all on camera of course.
We moved on inland to some of the side streets, eventually finding a small tuc-tuc type taxi to take us across town towards the market. It was a fun ride, with three of us squeezed into the back seat, waves splashing across the road. Eventually we reach the indoor market, Jo and Rebekah were there to meet us so we explored a bit further with them. We bought some souvenirs, t-shirts and trinkets mostly. Gradually we made our way back to our hostel where our taxi for the airport was waiting.
It was time to say goodbye to everyone, and into the taxi for Johnny, David and myself. We left the afternoon bustle of Havana and into the airport. We changed out of our shorts and made ready for the flight and the return to an autumnal Europe.
We toured the duty-free shop, picking up some rum and settling down with a coffee.
We were not in the departure area for long before being informed we had a couple of hours delay on the return flight. This looked like being a repeat of our flight out to Cuba.
Eventually the plane left around 6:00p.m. and we took off leaving Cuba behind, but bringing with us memories of incredibly friendly people, a beautiful culture and places that will forever have left their mark on us.
We are in debt to Bomby and Reyner our guides for the trip. Thanks to them for the insight and patience. A huge thank you to all of our Casa families too, who were all welcoming and warm.
The rest of my journey went pretty smoothly, despite a lack of sleep. I did make my connecting flight from Amsterdam to Glasgow with time to spare. Johnny just made it through security on time to get his onward flight to Edinburgh. David however was not so lucky. He missed a connection and his luggage took a bit of a detour too and wasn’t returned to him till quite some time later.
But I’d like to thank David for the invitation and Johnny for being a great travel companion and roomie on the trip.
If you’ve stuck with the story this long, thank you. If you ever get the chance to visit Cuba, please do so. It’s a wonderful place.